By Tom Baxter
Throughout this month there will be countless small anniversaries, as we think back on the day it became clear COVID-19 wasn’t just a big news story but something that would profoundly affect our lives.
We’d planned to fly to New York on March 5, 2020, to attend a surprise party for my brother-in-law. In what turned out to be the best decision either of us has made in the past year, my wife backed out at the last minute. Within days, reported cases and deaths in New York had exploded, and we had begun to settle into lockdown life. On March 12 I went to a lunch at Manuel’s for my old boss, Jim Minter, with about 20 people in attendance. That was my last social event of any size, unless you count squinting at Hollywood Squares images on a computer screen as a social event.
Great wars often begin with the perception that they will be over in a few weeks or months. In the early weeks of the of the pandemic in the United States, people argued over whether the economy should be reopened by Easter. In a brainstorming session with experts around the world, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that in a worst-case scenario, as many as 200,000 to 1.7 million Americans could die from the virus, but this information only came to light after the New York Times obtained a copy of the report. For the most part, the public conversation was about weeks and seasons, not months and years.
In no country has the battle with the virus become as thoroughly politicized as this one. That has to do with former President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis and the timing of the presidential election. But the larger societal issues raised by COVID-19, the deeper reasons why it was so hard to act in concert, are more troubling than the politics of the past year.
“What was most striking to me was the Asian society,” Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior advisor to the World Health Organization who had spent two weeks in China in early February of last year, said later. “It wasn’t what I was being told in terms of the measures being imposed by the government. It was the passion and the diligence, the sense of responsibility and the seriousness of the average Chinese… they just had an extraordinary understanding of the disease and a commitment to whatever was necessary.”
The Chinese government suppressed its critics as ruthlessly as the virus, and the WHO has been criticized for being too cozy with the Chinese. Aylward’s words nonetheless stand out nearly a year later. If this last year had been a war with the Chinese, as some tried to make it, we would have lost it.
“It’s so important to bring your population with you to implement these measures,” Aylward said last year. That has proven much more difficult in the United States than in China, or for that matter much of the rest of the world.
Difficult as it has been, millions of Americans have adjusted to social distancing and remote work and learning, if they are the lucky ones for whom that is possible. They have made the best of it, as people do in wars, but the expectation that we were “in this together” has been cruelly dashed. And although the aggressive vaccination campaign being carried out now is a hopeful sign that things are returning to “normal,” there’s less consensus than there was a year ago about what normal looks like.
Some people have defiantly refused to wear a mask throughout the pandemic, and some people are likely never to go without one in public for the rest of their lives. Some students are desperate to get back to a real classroom and others dread it. Some companies are looking at dramatically lower travel and entertainment budgets and wondering if normal could be put off a little longer, while the companies which sold them their tickets and drinks can’t have it return soon enough.
The disease itself has made it difficult for the society to act together. Many people have experienced it as a mild case of the sniffles. More than half a million died from it and others have suffered, or are still suffering, a dizzying variety of symptoms. This month marks a year since the pandemic became a reality in our lives, but it does not yet mark its end.