Along With Misery, COVID-19 Unleashed Opportunities: Let’s Not Cram Them Back in the Box

In Greek mythology, Pandora released misery and suffering on the world, but hope remained. COVID-19 will do the same.

Along With Misery, COVID-19 Unleashed Opportunities: Let’s Not Cram Them Back in the Box

The ancient Greeks had a very different concept of hope, or elpis (ἐλπίς), than we do today. Elpis was used to define an expectation of the future that could be either positive or negative, in contrast to how we understand hope today—an anticipation of something positive. The ancient Greeks even had an explanation for how hope was created. In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on earth, created by the ancient Greek gods as a punishment to mankind following Prometheus’ theft of fire. The gods each gave Pandora a gift that was contained in a box but was told never to open it. Many physicians and scientists may sympathize with Pandora’s predicament: her curiosity got the better of her and she succumbed to the urge to investigate further and opened the box.

The rest, as they say, is history. Greed, envy, hatred, pain, disease, hunger, poverty, war, and death were released onto mankind. Hoping to prevent the spread of this misery and suffering, Pandora tried to shut the box but only managed to halt the release of one of the “gifts” from the gods: elpis. As the myth goes, ever since Pandora opened her box, humans have been able to hold onto elpis/hope in order to survive whatever sorrows and hardships they encounter.

All of us will remember the opening of Pandora’s proverbial box at the end of 2019, with the spread of COVID-19 across the globe—a modern-day Greek tragedy with more than 293 million cases and 5.4 million deaths to date and climbing. We have firsthand experience of how COVID has affected our lives, both personally and professionally. All we had left at the end of 2021 was elpis in the truest sense of the ancient Greek definition—not necessarily the optimistic hope as we typically understand the term, but rather that of foreboding: spiraling hospitalizations, rising mortality, and further lockdowns and border closures, with no end in sight. The question many of us asked was: would it ever end?

I believe that this year will be different. Vaccination programs are rolling out across the globe, many of us are double-vaccinated and have received our boosters. Whilst cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant are increasing exponentially, hospitalizations and mortality are not following this trajectory. Most borders are open. Most of us have reappraised our lives whilst traveling our own personal road to Damascus. We have discovered new passions and learnt to value the things most important to us—a journey that has brought me, personally, to the top of many a mountain.

The story of Pandora’s box can also have a very different meaning to that originally penned. Whereas Pandora’s box only released misery and suffering irreversibly into the world, COVID-19 ushered in many positives that we should not try to return to the proverbial box. We have all learned to work differently, to live cautiously alongside the virus, to make better use of telehealth and digital technologies which for many years lay dormant, to do research differently, and to collaborate in novel ways with our peers. As many of our meetings went virtual, the number of registered delegates was three- to fourfold greater, allowing for greater participation of international faculty members who typically face insurmountable travel restrictions and costs, of female cardiologists who bore the brunt of COVID lockdowns closer to home, and of early-career faculty. Perversely, COVID-19 has done more for gender representation at cardiology congresses in 2 years than we have managed in two decades.

As much of our clinical work, our research, and our meetings return to in-person again, we cannot and should not try to reverse the global equitability and accessibility we have managed to achieve. This may be the year of elpis, but of a hope more familiar to all of us.