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The Pandemic Is Leaving Us
On a vanishing cultural footprint
What will we remember of the plague years? It’s easy to project onto the future what we feel now, the memories of the suffering so visceral, the evidence of the reckoning clear enough. People still get sick and die from Covid. Signage lingers, warning of the defunct six-foot social distancing rule or the importance of handwashing. Certain American cities and colleges maintain mandates for the Covid vaccine.
More than a million are dead, and their deaths, in the public imagination, were not created equal. In 2020, Covid deaths were a terror, and 100,000 of them were worthy of bellowing headlines on the front page of the New York Times. And then the body counts, for those not experiencing them directly, became more ordinary, the carnage a backdrop to another year. There was no reprieve in 2021. The pandemic swallowed us up, if not killing then destabilizing; schools closed, crime soared, and downtowns emptied out. For a period, the largest protests in a half century consumed every city imaginable. Time itself grew strange and elastic, equally fast and slow. Pandemic seasons bled together. It was like nothing else that had come before.
Now the era recedes. Fewer people are dying. The pandemic does not have a hold on the culture anymore. This is not a right-wing or left-wing talking point. This is history, psychology, the human need to cope with mass death—the longing to move onward, into the future. The lockdowns demanded in the earliest months could not hold. Some nations, like China, lasted years, and now the populace is finished. They hope for a version of their 2019 existence. They are no different than anyone else.
What is growing clearer is that the Covid pandemic will not permanently direct the currents of American society. An inevitable legacy was not inevitable after all. We are learning now why so many Americans and citizens of the world were willing to forget 1918, to bury the flu pandemic and rush headlong into the 1920s. In 1918 and 1919, masks came into vogue, as did frequent outdoor gatherings, and this collective knowledge was slowly lost, the mayors and governors of 2020 throwing caution tape around playground equipment, parks, and beaches. A century ago, some schooling was even held on rooftops and hospital beds were moved outdoors. For all the ways humanity has found to harvest information, it was shocking to learn how much of this was readily tossed into the void.
In 10 or 20 or 30 years, what will be recalled of this pandemic? What precautions, quirks, and stylistic imprints will survive? There are pandemic novels but now there are now post-pandemic novels. Far easier to elide the period entirely, to consign it to the past. Cinema and television are the same. The Law & Order Covid episodes—the telegenic cops darting around in their masks, only to drop them when speaking—will end up as visual trivia, curiosities for befuddled future viewers. In 1919 and 1920, the close memories of the first World War overwhelmed the pandemic, and it was the shell-shocked generation that came to dominate, with the flu as a footnote, even as it killed many more millions.
War, in one sense, was easier to conceptualize. It was loud and visible, of inarguable physical consequence. This kind of death could not happen in the shadows, in hushed bedrooms. A pandemic-ravaged city, in 1918 or 2020, did not lose its concrete office buildings, schools, and churches. There were no bombs or airplanes, no smoke plumes or flaming rubble. September 11th’s death toll was only a small fraction of Covid’s in New York, but there will be no comparable memorial for the more than 40,000 dead. There is no single day to remember them all and no gathering place to recall the lives they lived.
September 11th, like war, was a shock event, mass horror condensed and in plain view—the buildings exploded, then collapsed, the smoke cloud hanging for months. Blame was easily conjured and new disastrous wars were launched abroad. The surveillance state was hyper-charged into being, and history was inexorably wrenched in a new direction. More than 21 years later, we are still taking off our shoes in airports. Armored police bearing assault rifles are now a banal sight.
Covid, conversely, seems fated to fade. It is more difficult to grasp onto. Since it was so disruptive to ordinary life, its rituals are easier to leave behind. We want our holiday dinners. We want to visit parents and grandparents in nursing homes. We want movie theaters. We want the classroom. We want faces, smiling, that we can always see. Remembrance for a single day is simple enough: Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11, dates to be ticked off at proper times. Years are another matter. The human minds struggles against death at such a scale.
It's plausible that Covid will not leave much of a mark on even the second half of the 2020s. Compared to 9/11, there are far fewer documentaries, books, and movies to remind us of what was left behind. If Covid became highly politicized, America’s tribalism infecting debates on masks and vaccines, the pandemic itself is fast losing salience as campaign fodder. There are fewer 9/11-like Manichean claims to make—George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani would exploit the tragedy for years afterward—and the lockdown debates of 2021 couldn’t even carry forward into 2022. Republicans were triumphant as they bludgeoned Democrats for supporting the extensive closure of public schools. But the issue hardly registered last year, as voters turned to abortion, crime, and inflation. Liberals are hardly masking more readily than conservatives this winter. It is fitting Dr. Anthony Fauci, one totem of this era, has retired.
For some, Covid’s lack of an imprint on the public consciousness going forward—it’s failure to register like past catastrophes—is to be lamented. It’s true that the federal government must do far more to prepare for the next pandemic. Vaccine and treatment research should be generously funded. Nursing homes must not become warehouses of the dead. Elected leaders and bureaucrats cannot forget. Others, though, can be forgiven if they want to slowly regain what they lost in these past two years and 10 months. Life can only exist for so long on emergency footing. The post-pandemic future is beckoning and most Americans are going to race there as quickly as they can, just as their ancestors fled from the enormous shadow of the flu.
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