One year ago yesterday, the NBA suspended its season, Tom Hanks tested positive for a novel coronavirus, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned a congressional committee that things were going to get much worse, and the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a “pandemic.” President Trump would not admit publicly that the pandemic was “bad” until March 16, and most of us were still blithely going about our lives, albeit with a slightly heightened sense of dread. Today, more than half a million Americans are dead.
On Thursday, President Biden commemorated yet another somber COVID-related anniversary with a speech, delivered in a hushed, reverent manner that seems like a deliberate rebuttal of his predecessor’s demented incapacity for empathy.
Other aspects of Biden’s speech stood in direct contrast to his predecessor as well. Rather than peppering his speech with racist dog-whistling about the origins of the virus (ie “China Flu”), Biden took time to condemn a recent spate of attacks against Asian Americans, calling the violence “wrong” and “un-American.”
Rather than over-promising and under-delivering, like Trump and his reckless claims a year ago that America would be opened up by Easter, for no obvious reason beyond the fact that Trump would have considered it “beautiful,” Biden has been steadily and pragmatically moving the pandemic’s end date up.
The president believes that by Independence Day, Americans will be able to gather again in small groups. Rather than Trump’s “I alone can solve it,” Biden told the American people that he needed them. “I need every American to do their part. That's not hyperbole. I need you. I need you to get vaccinated when it's your turn and when you can find an opportunity.”
Biden’s communication style is a welcome departure from Trump’s, but so is his leadership style. President Biden actually seems to be doing his job, whereas President Trump always gave off the impression that he was too lazy, too stupid, or some combination of both to have any hope of staving off catastrophe. Under President Biden, the pace of vaccinations has accelerated beyond even his stated campaign goals, which seemed heedless at the time. The rate of infection is slowing in many places as a result. We’re not out of the woods yet, but it’s better to be in the woods with a guy with a flashlight and a map than a guy with a gas can and a book of matches.
To quote every D.C. Democrat’s current favorite talking point, “Help is on the way.” Maybe. Probably. Hopefully.
Despite the commemoration, March 11 is not COVID’s only anniversary, nor is March 16, nor was Dec. 31, the first time that China publicly released information on an outbreak of a pneumonia-like illness in the Wuhan province. The ongoing public health disaster doesn’t have a single anniversary; instead, these last few months have been a veritable skidmark of bleak milestones. If the pandemic was the public health equivalent of a gas truck accelerating into a curve and careening off a cliff, the biggest, longest, skidmark in the whole disaster was Donald John Trump.
Looking back on how erratic and out of his depth Trump was during the early days of the pandemic feels harrowing now, like watching footage of a car you were driving barely missing getting T-boned by a semi truck or being told by a doctor that had you not come into the hospital at that exact moment, you’d have died of sepsis within hours. Something bad happened; we were this close to something unfathomably worse.
It’s a relief to see President Biden at the helm of the ship in Trump’s place, but terrifying to think that 74 million Americans thought Trump was doing a good enough job to be re-elected. After four years of watching a slow-motion disaster, watching a public official demonstrate basic competence and empathy can feel like watching a Bridgerton sex scene.
Is the near-miss-ness of it all comforting? Maybe for some, but not for me; thinking about how much Trump’s incompetence contributed to the mess we’re in now actually makes me pretty angry. This didn’t have to happen this way, but it did because of him. I’m grateful to be rescued from this steaming pile of rubble, but I’m still pretty fucking angry at the guy who blew it up.
I understand that our leaders must reassure the American people that they are working hard and taking this seriously and that we are honoring the work of the people who got us this far. I understand that Biden must believe that America never wavered away from being good, even in the face of tragedy, but I believe that proclamation is more aspirational than reflective. We were not at our best over the last year, and a part of me shuts down every time a new round of these One Year Ago COVID moments passes. I just want to get through it, and then, vaccine in my arm and whatever lessons have embedded themselves in my subconscious, I never want to have to think about this fucking pandemic again.
COVID retrospectives are deeply unpleasant, and a lot of people who are currently suffering are going to need a beat before they pick at a wound that’s still fresh. For many, it’s not possible to look back on how awful this was with even dark amusement or in reverent search of a silver lining. This pandemic has cost people family members, their long-term physical and mental health, their jobs. Loved ones dying of diseases other than COVID have had to face death alone and forego hospital visitors. Small children are displaying serious signs of depression, an entire year of their educational and social development lost.
People suffering from addiction and domestic violence were forced into their homes with their tormentors for a year. Birthdays, vacations, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, first communions were canceled, postponed, or scaled down. The other night, a preview of a documentary about hospital workers battling COVID during its early days aired, and I turned to my husband and asked who would possibly want to watch that right now. While there is historical value in preserving records of what really happened, what value does reliving it as it happens add? For some, it’s simply not desirable or even possible to pause and reflect on something ongoing.
The pandemic brought out the best in a few, but the worst in many, many more. Most everybody is a worse version of themselves now than they were one year ago.
Many engaged in a toxic game of pandemic overkill one-upmanship, others flouted guidelines to such a superspreading degree that they cost everybody else dearly.
Everybody’s brain seems a little bit broken now. People from my hometown who I always thought were relatively level-headed and normal who were suddenly posting bizarre conspiracy theories about microchips and evil Chinese labs on Facebook. People who never displayed agoraphobic or germophobic tendencies before suddenly transformed into Howard Hughes-level shut-ins, going well beyond any public health expert advice and acting bizarrely judgmental of others who didn’t behave similarly. People became violently averse to wearing masks in stores and other shared indoor spaces, despite all the evidence that suggested that mask-wearing was one of the most effective ways to slow the spread in enclosed areas. Adults threw public tantrums about wearing masks on airplanes where everybody else was wearing masks. Outdoors, where it’s long been known that spread of the virus is much more difficult, scolds abounded.
Not long ago, I was wearing my mask dangling off one ear, walking my dog alone on a residential sidewalk with nobody within 50 feet of me, and a man across the street and down the block yelled “MASK!” before turning a corner, as though the virus were somehow going to get him from all the way over there. Playgrounds were roped off and shut down in some places, bars stayed open in others. Some people replaced canceled weddings with socially distanced micro-ceremonies where even the officiant wore a mask and elderly parents were told to stay home, others went on ahead and had their 150-person indoor receptions anyway with grandma leading the conga line.
In San Francisco, one couple conspired with church officials to sneak wedding attendees in a secret door in order to skirt local ordinances. Members of the government who served in the military whined about wearing paper masks over their face to prevent the spread of disease. People were publicly shamed for sitting on the beach or walking on nature trails. It was the Chinese Year of the Rat, the American Year of the Asshole.
One year from now, we will hopefully be approaching the end of One Year Ago pandemic retrospectives and the bizarre wistfulness they convey. Because despite what the cloying ads for subcompact cars and life insurance and streaming entertainment platforms and even, yes, optimistic political speeches have been harping on for the last 12 months, this was not a year when we all were Together, Apart.
We weren’t stronger, or united, or at our best. This was not a year that showcased the apex of decency, we didn’t spend it shooting rays of love at each other through hospital windows while an overwrought song about connection plays. This was the year that everybody lost their goddamn minds, a year we barely survived, and anybody who tells you differently is trying to sell you something.