Once upon a time, on an otherwise beautiful day in mid-March as people in one hemisphere were starting their days and those in the other were readying for bed, an event occurred that affected the entire solar system.
The event lasted for only several minutes—just three minutes and eighteen seconds, to be exact. But the result was far, far more long lasting. Astrophysicists had yet to identify the exact cause, but the sun’s fusion had somehow been interrupted, excited, or otherwise irritated. This resulted in a massive release of solar matter that coalesced into a thin nebula, or cloud, that surrounded the sun, diffusing the sunlight.
Temperatures across the solar system dropped, and in only a few weeks, the people of Earth understood the consequences of the new solar cloud and that their reality had changed. The drop in the Earth’s temperature was not enough to affect the planet’s actual habitability, but just enough to change the number of people the planet could support. There was no appreciable difference in radiation levels and no change to the gravity of the sun, but the sudden reduction in sunlight almost immediately slowed the growth rate and yields of plants.
Astrophysicists around the world and in the International Space Station worked to study the phenomenon and its implications. After generations of ignoring global warming and the suffering that had just been starting to be felt, the world had almost no time at all to completely switch gears and react to a far more massive and immediate global chilling.
Scientific instruments across the world were turned to the sun and its new cloud, and even the most optimistic results from the many scientific studies showed that the world was in for massive change and uncomfortable adjustment. Religious leaders, conspiracy theorists, social media celebrities, and lessor politicians argued about what to name the new solar cloud and who was to blame. Serious world leaders and leading scientists looked to pragmatic matters, urging optimism and preparation. Every nation across the globe rationed food and outlawed hoarding, and huge budgets were focused on finding answers and solutions. In the face of the worldwide colder climate, the world population went into a panic.
Or rather, most of it did.
About 7-10% of people across the world suffer from one of a small handful of conditions, collectively referred to as sun allergies (SA)1, in which exposure to even indirect sunlight causes a rash on exposed skin that can range from an uncomfortable annoyance to a life-threatening burn. For those with SA, the needed precautions are merely annoying and the pain is manageable, and for a lucky few, almost ignorable. They live seemingly normal lives and just learn to bear it and hide their pain from the rest of the world. However, some SA sufferers have such acute cases that they live entirely ensconced in dark basements to hide from the sun. And those with the resources live as close to the earth’s poles as possible, moving their homes as necessary to escape the sun’s reach.
And so, as much of the world was in panic, all but the very worst sufferers of SA found themselves in a new world in which their pain was completely gone. Thousands of people, in some cases for the first time since they were very young children, emerged, liberated from their dark rooms and dark polar encampments to face the dimmer sun and the prospect of a normal life. Of course, “normal” now had a new meaning. They were in just as much danger as everyone else in the changing new world, but they also had something to smile about.
In the first few months of the crisis there was a surge in crime, an increase in calls to domestic abuse help lines, and rampant truancy from schools. There was a double-digit increase in suicides and a surge in hospitalizations and deaths due to heart attack and other conditions that are exacerbated by anxiety and stress. Massive swaths of people died of hunger in areas of the world in which extreme food shortages had already been a serious problem.
Scientists knew that temperatures would drop, but predicted the change would stop short of double digits. The world had so recently learned from climate change studies in the days of global warming that a change of only a few degrees can have far-reaching effects, and so were less prone to underestimate the dangers from the temperature drop to come.
There were mass migrations to the very areas from which people had so recently fled when the earth had been warming. In those parts of the planet in its summer and spring seasons, the difference was bearable and even pleasant. But in the hemisphere where winter was setting in, the cold led to increased mortality. As temperatures continued to drop, the increased need for energy to heat homes and businesses rose just as there was a decrease in the amount of solar energy produced. There were widespread power outages with accompanying interruptions in communications, and a huge increase of smoke in the air from the heightened reliance on burning wood for heat. Amidst all this suffering, those people lucky enough to have the health and resources to deal with the new reality carried on as best they could.
The SA sufferers were in just as much peril as anyone else on the newly dimmed earth. But as most people struggled to keep positive, the SA sufferers thrived as they experienced life without painful blistered skin. The doom was just as real to the SA sufferers, but they were the only people who experienced a lining that was more precious than silver in the solar cloud casting doubts and darkness across the world. Many people admirably reached out to help others and lift them from depression, to share food, and to work out the small ways that communities could help each other, and the SA sufferers were usually at the forefront of these efforts.
About four months into the crisis, scientists in the China National Space Administration (CNSA) determined that the cloud was slowly dispersing. Six weeks later, scientists in an informal group of combined European, US, Chinese, Russian, and other national space agencies gave a definite timeline: The cloud would be gone in just two years, with its effects sufficiently diluted for normality on earth in just over fourteen more months. Of course the SA sufferers hoped for the full return of sunlight along with the rest of the world, as their lives depended on it just like anyone else’s. But they also harbored a deep grief that when the sunlight returned, they would return to the pain they’d known before—the freedom they were experiencing now would be gone, the pain would return, and they would have to re-learn how to cope.
By the time of the anniversary of the event that had shrouded the sun—the name of which still being endlessly debated on social media—the toll on Earth had been large. Over two million human beings had died by suicide or starvation, and many were still in grave danger. The only honey bees left were those being tenuously maintained by beekeepers. Several species of endangered birds and animals that had been on the brink of extinction for nearly a decade finally passed wholly into full extinction, and dozens more were added to the official endangered lists. Massive die-offs of trees had started in forests across the world from the Amazon to Siberia, and the loss of crops was massive.
But there was positive news, too. Many of the effects of global warming, which had been the world’s hard problem before the solar cloud, had been reversed. There had been a complete cessation of ice loss in the arctic and a slow reversal of the rise in ocean levels. The dying corals and other life in the reefs in overheating ocean waters had benefited from cooler temperatures, although in some areas new problems had emerged toward the other extreme. New techniques in farming and animal husbandry had been developed that would increase yields with less environmental impact, although there was still much to learn in this area. And the initial surge in crime slowed as people around the world began to focus more on surviving together.
The SA sufferers had learned early on to never express any joy from their new pain-free lives in public. After too many attempts to explain to others why they were remaining positive in the face of so much world despair, the endless arguments about who to blame for the still-unnamed solar cloud were beginning to name the SA sufferers as somehow complicit. While most people knew this was completely impossible, there was a too-large population of people who were just stupid enough to believe such imaginary things, making it a matter of survival for the SA sufferers to wipe the smiles off their faces and keep quiet.
Just two years after the event—still unnamed and still hotly debated online—the light of the sun again bathed the Earth at pre-crisis levels. Scientists said that despite the hardships, the long months of cooling had done the earth quite a lot of good, giving the people a healing reprieve from the damage that had been started from global warming. Even though over seven million people had died, many changes had occurred in society for the better, not least of which was a greater emphasis on unity and a mindset that made caring for the planet a high priority.
As the world rejoiced, the SA sufferers returned to their previous painful lives. They again shielded their bodies from the sun and returned to their basements or to their polar encampments, newly excavated from thick layers of ice and snow. Most were able to relearn how to deal with the pain and carried on, some with a happy memory of their months-long reprieve, while others despaired and joined the ranks of suicides. A few people noticed a general loss of exuberance and positivity even among their friends and loved ones who had seemed especially positive during the crisis years, but mostly people were grateful that they were alive.
The world had faced its greatest crisis and had come out of it a better place. For the most part, the people of earth lived happily ever after.
But of course, there is a moral to this story.
About 7-10% of people across the world suffer from a condition called social anxiety disorder, or SAD2, for whom any social interaction is uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. For some with SAD, the discomfort is often bearable, manageable, and for a lucky few, almost ignorable. They live seemingly normal lives and just learn to bear it and hide their discomfort from the rest of the world. However some SAD sufferers have such acute cases that they live entirely ensconced in their homes to minimize interactions with others
The Covid pandemic has been a horrible reality for the world and has created issues that will be felt for many years to come. Many are adjusting to life having lost treasured loved ones. Now, with change around the corner, many people feel a glimmer of real hope and look forward to freer working arrangements, the opening of their children’s schools, and more social contact. Small business owners anticipate a chance to keep their doors open and return to solvency, and those in high-risk health categories will get a reprieve from the constant threat to their lives and the extreme precautions they have had to take.
As you rejoice about the coming end to Covid restrictions, please don’t begrudge those with SAD the little bit of grief that they feel. They are relieved for the coming reductions in the dangers from Covid, too. But this happy time comes with a return to their figurative basements and the start of a long readjustment back into an uncomfortable world. Have some patience for the people who mourn the return to business travel, face-to-face meetings, and social contact.
1 The Sun Allergy in this story is an exaggeration of a small handful of very real conditions that are often collectively referred to as sun allergies:
- Polymorphous light eruption (PMLE) is a non-life-threatening rash caused by direct exposure to the sun that affects around 10% of the global population. It is very uncomfortable but not generally life-threatening. [More about PMLE from the Mayo Clinic]
- The rarer solar urticaria (SU) is similar to PMLE in that it causes a rash from exposure to sunlight, but the symptoms are more extreme and long-lasting and require far less exposure to light. [More about SU from the British Association of Dermatologists]
- Rarer still is Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) with far more extreme symptoms and which is often fatal before middle-age if exposure to sunlight is not diligently avoided. [More about XP from the National Organization for Rare Disorders]
2 You can learn more about Social Anxiety Disorder from these sources:
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- Mental Health America
- National Institute of Mental Health