The conversations went like this: it will only be in a few days. He can be kept at a distance. There will be downsides, sure, but the world will just be put on hold – just a short break, out of caution, and certainly not some sort of major shutdown. Certainly not for two years.
Certainly not for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who were among us at that time in mid-March 2020 – who experienced the start, watched it, worried about it (or didn’t ) and which, plain and simple, are not here anymore.
“Just a temporary moment,” insisted the then president of the United States. Just a few days. Just a few weeks. Just a few months. Just a few years.
The thing is, on March 12, 2020, no one really knew how it would turn out. How could they?
Flattening the curve — such a new term then, such a frozen moment of a sentence today — seemed genuinely possible two years ago this weekend, when Major League Baseball’s spring training games got under way. ended with their suddenly postponed season, when universities told students to stay away, when Congress – surprisingly – began to question whether it would be able to work from home.
“We recommend that there be no large crowds,” the nation’s top infectious disease researcher told Congress two years ago on Friday, presaging two years of arguments over that exact statement. His name was Anthony Fauci, and he would become one of the most polarizing figures in Pandemic America, caught between provable science and accusations of alarmism, incompetence and even occasional malevolence from the former president himself.
And for a while, there weren’t many people. Except when there were.
For weeks in those early days, Americans in many corners of the republic all but shut down. Faces disappeared as masks rose against the unseen opponent – if you could actually get them. Hand sanitizer has been sprayed so liberally that some distilleries have switched from whiskey to alcohol-based hand sanitizers. People discussed ventilator shortages over family meals. Zoom has become a household word for the nation; suddenly your co-workers have been laid out on a screen in front of you like a personalized, daily “Brady Bunch” opening credits.
All these things were new once.
In the weeks that followed, as the magnitude of things unfolded, there were questions we knew how to ask and questions we didn’t.
The ones we knew to ask: how does it spread and how easily? Can we keep it? Can I even go out safely? Should I wash my groceries? Will there be a vaccine, and if so, when?
The Ones We Haven’t Seen: How do we combat the extreme mountains of misinformation and disinformation surrounding the virus and vaccines that have emerged from the scientific community with astonishing rapidity? How do we handle the anger and national division that spilled out of the political arena into the protracted discussion of the virus and burned in conversational trash fires across the country? How do you navigate the emotional rubble of an entire generation of children whose lives and education would be turned upside down?
These questions are the ones that, for the moment, do not seem outdated. They seem fresh and immediate, and they remain largely unaddressed today – a time when it can be difficult to recall memories of when this thing started because of everything that has happened since and everything that is happening. again.
American memory is a strange beast. The nation, which is younger than most societies on the planet, loves to proclaim its storyline for action, but has long struggled to acknowledge or even acknowledge its history – whether racial or military, from gender or economic. The history of the pandemic, even in the two years since those days in March 2020, is hardly an exception.
Do you remember those times when we talked about working together, when daily life was sufficiently unbalanced for Americans to be a little more gentle with each other for a while? When the word “COVID” was still barely used and everyone was talking only about the coronavirus?
“If we avoid each other and listen to the scientists, maybe in a few weeks it will be better,” Koloud “Kay” Tarapolsi of Redmond, Wash., told The Associated Press on March 11, 2020. Exactly two years later This week, she said of those early days, “I just wish we’d taken it more seriously.”
And now: Over 6 million lost souls worldwide. Nearly a million deaths in the United States – and the polarization that was already pushing the fabric of American society re-arranged in pandemic wrath, pitting masked neighbor against unmasked neighbor, creating a fertile petri dish to grow marks of distrust and misconception.
The thing about history is this: sometimes we talk about “now” as if it were the culmination of everything that came before – the real destination of everything. What we often forget to consider is that “now” is just another crossroads along the way, another waypoint on the way to the next thing and the next and the next.
This applies to the “now” of March 2020, yes. But this also applies to the “now” of March 2022. It is useful to reflect on the particularly strange and disturbing year 2020 – you are trying to learn from what happened before – but it also offers the possibility to think about something else: two years later, how will we look now? How will we measure what we are doing two years after it all started? Is this thing almost over? And what happens when it does?
“Who are we after this? Who are we after facing this situation that we have never experienced before? Hilary Fussell Sisco, a professor at Quinnipiac University who studies how people communicate in troubled times, said Saturday exactly two years ago. “You find out who you are when a crisis hits.”
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, has written about American culture since 1990 and has overseen AP’s coverage of the pandemic’s impact on society. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted