Think of us as cicadas, the insects you’ve heard about ad nauseam, that live underground for 17 years and then surface to get it on. Well, we humans in the U.S. have sheltered in place for 17 months, give or take, tucked away from the ravages of COVID. And now we are about to find out how bawdy our bodies have become.

Now millions of hibernating Americans will emerge, courtesy of the vaccine, to discover how the world has changed. The absence of masks — prima facie evidence of a return to “normal” — might reveal a metamorphosed society.

True, the millions of workers who got used to upper-half masquerades during Zoom meetings, or those who were forced into babysitting the kiddies at home as the family urchins struggled with school, will now come trickling back to the office — if they have an office to which they can return. Many desperate employers discovered the financial advantages of having less real estate, and some have turned to machines to make their employees flat out obsolete. Fewer jobs mean fewer restaurants or food trucks, fewer hotel rooms, fewer shopping opportunities, fewer entertainment venues and, most importantly, fewer workers downtown to staff those facilities.

And what about those precious little delicate flower kiddies, who are going back to in-person school, or will return this fall?

Will they be like the cicadas and have forgotten all they had learned, or will at least some of the virtual instruction have actually taken? Probably a bit of both. Chances are they will have some catching up to do.

Will colleges and universities have to lower their admission standards, or will higher education change now that we’ve discovered that you don’t have to go to a boring lecture from a pompous junior instructor in a decrepit building at exorbitant tuition prices when you can get that same pomposity from your Zoom room at home?

How will the politicians respond to all these changes? The easy answer is poorly or not at all. They’re dinosaurs anyway, mired in extinct issues, ready for some meteor to obliterate them before they even deal with reality — as opposed to the cliched issues of yesteryear. They are most preoccupied with keeping their jobs, which makes them vulnerable to the demagogues and influence peddlers who will pay good — or should I say bad? — money to keep things the way they were. That is to say unfairly distributed. We never learn or, if we do learn, it’s the wrong lesson.

The pandemic provided proof. Since the beginning of the United States, we have been stained as a nation by our oppressive treatment of people of color. Even today, as we undeservedly gloat about each tidbit of progress we’ve made, we are faced with statistics that minorities have been disproportionately felled by the coronavirus. Why? Because of crippling discrimination, that’s why. We are still badly burdened by inequality. The poor are stuck in menial jobs that require face-to-face contact with the infectious general public, forced to live far from health care as well as nutrition.

It’s not hard to understand that. The reaction has been divided. Liberals talk a good game. They pretend they want to take meaningful steps to force police to stop killing minorities, going through the motions of making schools better for all, giving lip service to the ways they’ll achieve equal opportunity. Conservatives challenge what they call a “critical race” curriculum, attacking the way the history of prejudice in the United States is taught. All that frustration and futility begs the question that cicadas ask even if they succeed in making the big score after 17 years of anticipation: Was it really worth it?

Bob Franken is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who covered Washington for more than 20 years with CNN; his opinions are his own.

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