Will We Ever Grasp the Enormity of the Pandemic?
As long as we focus on deaths and statistics, the bigger story of Covid-19 will go untold
On Tuesday, March 3, 2020, Alex Goldstein, the founder of a Boston strategic-communications company, spent the entire day counting mail-in ballots for the Massachusetts presidential primary. He was locked into an unventilated, 20-by-20-foot room with 30 other volunteers, most of them elderly. They all tore into lukewarm pizzas with their ink-grubby hands, clowned for photos, and gossiped a little about a “foreign crisis” in China and Italy — the novel coronavirus.
Seven Americans had died, but the disease still felt remote. The World Health Organization was declining to call the disease a pandemic. Community spread had not been identified in Massachusetts. At least 10 days before, roughly 175 executives with the drug company Biogen had met for a conference at a nearby hotel, the Boston Marriott; the event would seed 300,000 infections from Boston to Slovakia. But as far as Goldstein and his fellow volunteers were still concerned, the burdensome part of this virus was having to remember to sing “Happy Birthday” two times when they washed their hands.
One week later, Goldstein woke up and the world had changed. The day before, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had plummeted 7.8%. New cases were popping up from Iowa to Washington, D.C., the Coachella music festival was called off, and Boston canceled its St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “We can’t be doing the kinds of things we were doing a few months ago,” warned Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a White House press conference. Goldstein realized a photo of himself clowning shoulder-to-shoulder with elderly strangers while counting ballots was the most recent photo on his phone. He called all four of his employees and told them not to come into the office.
The newspapers filled with jargon: “pulse oximeter,” “underlying conditions,” “incubation period,” “social distancing.” Numbers were everywhere, as if the right one — case-fatality rate, infection-fatality rate, the percentage of infected people under 60 who’d died — would lead us like Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth of the pandemic, would become the key to understanding what was happening and what we should do.
“I wanted to find something uncontroversial,” Goldstein told me, feeling the need to take action. He felt unexpectedly nostalgic for September 11, 2001, which occurred when he was 17. He remembered the day as a moment when his country had come together, if briefly, to acknowledge universal heroes and recognize a common wound.
“Every single member of the New York Fire Department who died had a public funeral with thousands of people,” Goldstein recalled. “You could mourn together. The human element was everywhere. Everybody was looking at the posters on the lampposts. You had the phone calls by the people on the planes.” “Now come the names,” then-President George W. Bush said in his famous post-9/11 speech. By naming the dead and telling the stories of their lives we could overwhelm the disparate, divisive opinions about what constituted a correct response to trauma, and yield a singular national experience. “A world that does not seem to agree about anything,” the New York Times marveled, “can settle on the names of the dead.”
Over the last increasingly partisan decade, commentators referred to 9/11 wistfully. It was an experience of national unity that had supposedly happened once and therefore could supposedly happen again. In 2012, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggested America again needed “common threats.” Goldstein could already tell the pandemic was going to be different. He worried the reality of the pandemic — the human beings who were dying of Covid-19 — would be lost under the torrent of statistics. And the images emerging out of coronavirus-struck China, South Korea, Italy, and eventually the United States, were of a mass event without funerals, without vigils, experienced queerly alone, with the sick in their isolation rooms and the well stuck in their apartments looking out over empty streets.
The final week of March last year, he decided to create a Twitter account, @FacesofCovid. He would tweet every obituary he could find, culling stories from funeral homes’ websites and local papers from North Dakota to New Orleans to try to ensure, as close as he could, that he included everybody. It’s not that Goldstein wanted to find an upside to the pandemic. But he did want to remind Americans they were still one people, united by loss.
That sentiment might sound like a fantasy a year later, with more than 500,000 deaths to memorialize. It’s the kind of fantasy that makes one emit a grim laugh. How could anybody have been so naive? But many of us were still hopeful then. Mayo Clinic experts and left-of-center publications were still warning about excessive panic. Don’t “freak out,” the Henry Ford Health System foundation advised on March 13, 2020. “Ask yourself: what are all of the reasons I should feel safe? What are all of the things I am doing to make a bad outcome less likely? Why should I not be afraid?”
After so many years in which Americans’ opinions seemed to slot so predictably, like a cheater’s weighted pinballs, down their pre-appointed red or blue tubes, it was amazing — jaw-dropping even — to witness an event that could shake up a machine rigged by class, race, and partisanship. On March 25, Ed Yong suggested in The Atlantic that the pandemic could be a “democratizing experience,” since “people whose privilege and power would normally shield them from a crisis are facing quarantines, testing positive, and losing loved ones.”
Yong made a glowing prediction about what the following months and years might bring:
A communal spirit, ironically born through social distancing, causing people to turn outward, to neighbors both foreign and domestic. The election of November 2020 becomes a repudiation of “America first” politics. The nation pivots, as it did after World War II, from isolationism to international cooperation. Buoyed by steady investments and an influx of the brightest minds, the health-care workforce surges. Gen C kids write school essays about growing up to be epidemiologists. Public health becomes the centerpiece of foreign policy. The U.S. leads a new global partnership focused on solving challenges like pandemics and climate change.
Not quite. “2020 was a year,” we say. But really, it was a year’s worth of chaotic shifts in opinion packed into one month — mid-March to mid-April — and then an unending series of single days that seemed to repeat each other, like in the movie Groundhog Day. In early May, we still told ourselves “children infected with the coronavirus have mild symptoms or none at all.” even though a five-year-old had recently died of Covid-19 complications in a Detroit hospital. And as Goldstein prepared his unifying Twitter account, Quinnipiac pollsters had already found Americans’ views were settling along partisan lines, with Democrats twice as likely as Republicans to worry that a close friend would contract the virus and four times as likely to judge their president was doing a bad job.
Nonetheless, there was a persistent fantasy the pandemic held some key to national unity, a truth we’d all have to acknowledge, unlike, say, poverty, which impacts unevenly and is sometimes hidden. A 37-year-old doctor I know, diagnosed with Covid-19 in late April, told me he believed an “incontrovertible visual image” of the pandemic could get Americans on the same page about policies, like the picture of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the naked girl photographed running from a napalm attack, is thought to have turned American opinion against the Vietnam War.
But when he said this, images of refrigeration trailers settling like vultures outside hospitals had already been published, and so had aerial photos of mass graves dug on New York’s Hart Island. Photographs, now ubiquitous thanks to smartphones, don’t hold the same power they once did. In contravention of his hospital’s rules, my doctor friend took a selfie in a bed in his intensive-care unit and posted it on Facebook. I saved his picture as the wallpaper on my cell phone, to show to anyone who was dubious about the virus’s impact on the young.
Some people noted the gauze wrapped around my friend’s forehead to hold up the oxygen tube strung through his nose. It has a red blotch, a Republican friend of mine pointed out. Was I sure this man hadn’t gotten into an accident? Maybe he was passing his suffering off as Covid-19, either to win money for his hospital or to bask in the drama and glory my acquaintance now judged hovered around pandemic survivors?
I know him, I said. He has Covid-19.
But how do you know? my acquaintance pressed.
He’s a doctor, I said.
But how do you know he is telling the truth?
Our partisan divisions feel worse now, more eternal and hopeless. But what has united us is the near-universal claim that the people who disagree with us are virtue-signaling, or acting out of self-interest, while we care mainly about others. Almost nobody has been willing to admit this year they speak on behalf of themselves. Shutdown opponents say their opinions arise out of concern for vulnerable small-business owners. Shutdown advocates say they worry about the medically vulnerable. We also share the belief there has to be some statistical, rational heart of this experience expressible in numbers or charts, and that the other side ought to be persuaded given the right facts and figures.
Everybody tried so hard this past year to make the pandemic’s toll real to everybody else. Mask-haters don’t only hate masks in private, they tout studies to try to prove masks stunt childrens’ “emotional recognition.” The people who despair about mask-deniers tweet articles from Lancet and Nature proving that masks work. In a year defined physically by isolation, there has been no such thing as a private opinion.
There’s also been no sense some suffering might have had to happen. Every form of suffering Americans experienced was cast as a totally preventable mistake. It could have been perfect, we tell ourselves about 2020. When shutdown critics shared stories of isolation-driven mental health crises, they did it to argue none of that had to happen if only insane freaks hadn’t been in charge. We could have had a peaceable year, they claim, free from fear. Others strove to reframe the pandemic’s dire corollary losses — lost jobs, broken marriages — as corollary gains, as the chance to learn what we really want out of life, to prove we’re communally minded, to “slow down” and learn how to bake bread, to give the natural world a break from our influence. (“As the Earth stops to take a collective deep breath, you have a rare opportunity to reimagine and redefine your place in the world,” a conservancy group declared, writing to humans in the “voice” of Covid-19, as if it was going to be our teacher.)
In this weird, confusing March-to-April time, many of my friends who took Covid-19’s health threats very seriously also shared concerned articles about the economic and emotional tolls of fear and isolation. They do so less now, though these tolls have accumulated. Meanwhile, others believe the downside of the mass behavioral shifts required to slow the epidemic outweigh the downside of letting Covid-19 rip. But they don’t say it’s a trade-off. Even excess deaths could be trophies, they argue, proof we’re a courageous people who spit in the face of death. “I would rather have a few weeks of a spirited life than spend a year as a prisoner in my own home,” one anti-shutdown friend of mine wrote to me. “I would rather us embody thumos over fear.” There is a unity here, a common sense that the path we advocated for has to turned out not only to be a darkly necessary choice, but a pristine one.
In the beginning, so much of what was written about Covid-19 in America—the statistics and numbers—were exactly what Alex Goldstein wanted to avoid with his work. He wanted to take time to observe, to be reverent for what we were enduring without the insistence that it all could have happened differently. On March 31, the day @FacesOfCovid went live, Goldstein tweeted the deaths of 37 Americans ages 34 to 92, with accompanying photographs and rich details. Rabbi Romi Cohn of New York, 91, “saved 56 families” during the Holocaust. Jazmine Dixon of Missouri, 31, “aspired to open a bakery.” Sundee Rutter of Washington state, 42, “was a breast cancer survivor.” Daniel Scully of Las Vegas, 69, was “a diehard Cubs fan.” Oliver Stokes Jr., a 44-year-old Louisiana DJ, pictured on his wedding day beaming in a gray suit in front of a purple-feather-adorned cake, was a “loving husband.” Over nearly a year, @FacesOfCovid gained 150,000 followers and has tweeted over 5,000 micro-obituaries of Americans who died of Covid-19.
“Our feelings are innumerate,” the University of Oregon social psychologist Paul Slovic told me. Slovic runs Decision Research, an institute that uses neurology to study decision-making, and he focuses particularly on how we decide to act compassionately. He finds people give less to post-disaster charities when presented with data about the huge number of sufferers than they do when they’re shown one suffering person’s face. They feel confused and overwhelmed by large numbers. “We’ll do a lot to save one life. But if there are two people at risk, it doesn’t feel twice as important.”
In the end, though, Goldstein tweeted numbers as well; they felt so big and urgent. On August 13: “There have been 2,666 deaths from COVID-19 reported in the US in the last 48 hours.” August 17: “Every one of the 2000+ deaths we’ve tweeted is a policy failure.”
Everybody tried so hard this past year to make the pandemic’s toll real to everybody else.
As 2020 rolled on, everything began to be foregrounded against the backdrop of the sum total of dead, as if it was the name tag we had to wear to every other occasion. Hi, I’m America. 525,000 dead. The day Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, newspapers wrote, was also the day the U.S. hit 200,000 confirmed Covid-19 deaths. “I want to be clear about what every American should know” about their country, President-elect Biden said in late December, in a speech about vaccination rates falling behind; the most important thing was that we had crossed 330,000 deaths. The day the pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, newspapers noted, America recorded 3,964 Covid-19 deaths, its highest daily toll to that date.
Some Americans can still tell you exactly 15 people died in the Columbine massacre or 17 in the Parkland shooting. Recently, I was talking to a historian of ancient Greece and he randomly mentioned he thought 168 people died 25 years ago in the Oklahoma City bombing. He was spot on.
We fixate on tragedies we think we can enumerate and contain like this. Almost nobody knows off the top of their heads that approximately 800 American women died in childbirth in 2019, or that in 2018, 48,344 Americans died by suicide. These problems are more dismally systemic and persistent: stubbornly chronic illnesses, not freak hit-by-a-bus events. By striving to define the Covid-19 experience by this same kind of precise toll, we try to stuff it into the category of easier tragedies with a clear start and end point after which we can staunchly resolve to never let that happen again.
Doctor Mark Shapiro, a sports-loving, energetic California physician, hosts a health care podcast and works as a hospitalist, a specialist in caring for hospitalized patients. He received his second Pfizer shot on January 11. Yet when I spoke to him shortly before that, he said a strong recurring emotion he felt was anger. As a doctor, he’d been taught to treat all patients equally. It broke his heart to discover the different regard in which Americans held different bodies.
On Goldstein’s Twitter feed, the obituary of a 66-year-old white man who played Santa every Christmas in Wayne County, Iowa, garnered nothing but compassion. “Anyone who plays Santa is okay in my book,” one person commented. On July 4, Goldstein posted the photograph and obit of Andre Guest, a 16-year-old Black Indiana boy whose April death was ruled Covid-19-related. “He loved photography, basketball, and bowling,” Goldstein tweeted. “Looks overweight to me,” a Californian named John replied. “This guy’s BMI is 50-ish,” another person added.
In other words: The Black teen’s death was his fault, not ours. He isn’t someone to whom Americans, writ large, owe a debt. When Daequan Wimberly, a Black 11-year-old from Florida, died, people critiqued his unusually small figure, shown in a photo in a silver waistcoat and matching bow tie. He must have had “severe health issues besides Covid,” someone concluded.
As a hospitalist, Shapiro was at his region’s Covid-19 epicenter, and he was perpetually exhausted. “One of the things that’s given me pause about the entire pandemic experience is — what’s happening to the people who were deployed to fight it?” Shapiro said. Many health care workers now suffer from burnout, but there’s also anger and a sense of betrayal. The health care community was “attacked, belittled, and insulted at the highest level,” Shapiro said — by then-President Donald Trump, who repeatedly claimed “our doctors get more money” if someone dies from Covid-19.
Laypeople often weren’t aware of the terror and potential shame triggered by the widespread, necessity-driven pandemic practice of “redeployment,” or sending ear, nose, and throat doctors to battle in the Covid-19 wards. “You’re not doing the things you normally do. For skilled doctors, that’s frightening. For a pediatric neurosurgeon to treat Covid-19 is not normal. You’d be afraid you’re going to do something wrong. We have people who are tired. They are grieving. There is going to be a shared trauma experience. It’s going to take huge treasure to take care of it.” Shapiro predicted a “reckoning” within the medical culture, observing how it silenced health care workers from within, suggesting they should bottle up trauma.
There is a “cultural stoicism that imbues American medicine,” Shapiro said. “The stiff-upper-lip, suck-it-up attitude.” Several health care workers were fired for posting desperate, angry YouTube videos about conditions at their hospitals. “We felt like we weren’t supposed to be angry.”
Shapiro and a doctor friend he made online this year, the Texas nephrologist Sayed Tabatabai, shared a kind of dirty pleasure listening to a profane audio clip of Tom Cruise ranting at the crew of the next Mission: Impossible movie for failing to social distance on set: “You people are standing around a fucking computer and hanging out — what are you doing? We are creating thousands of jobs, you motherfuckers! Do you understand the responsibility you have?”
Tabatabai told me he felt jealous — this emotion was exactly what he longed to express. He acknowledged the irony that Tom Cruise, a fucking Scientologist, spoke his pandemic truth.
By striving to define the Covid-19 experience, we try to stuff it into the category of easy tragedies with a clear start and end point.
News out of our hospitals was simultaneously supposed to be chaotic, to motivate Americans to take caution, and also to seem calm, reassuring us there were safe zones with rational heroes. The way Tabatabai described the contradictory social pressures on him reminded me of Whiplash, a movie about a sadistic director of a conservatory jazz band. The director touts his band as the greatest — all while tormenting his players because being pushed past all reasonable limits is what it takes to become an American hero.
That’s how much of America treated health care workers this year: They were criticized for hysteria, then taunted for being too whimsical and upbeat when they danced for their patients, sometimes by the same people at the same time.
Tabatabai said he entered medicine to help people. This year, he became disillusioned. Old, familiar patients told him to his face they suspected he had “ulterior” financial motives in diagnosing them with Covid-19. He struggles to be moved by the gratitude he receives now. It can feel pat, he says, sometimes more of a way for the speaker to congratulate himself for his own capacity for gratitude. Dealing with health care workers’ residual resentment post-Covid-19 — making them whole — was going to be “generational work,” he reckoned.
The medical profession made mistakes, forced and unforced, that will demand internal reckonings, Tabatabai acknowledged. But the strong, countervailing instinct right now is to feel wounded and defensive. In December, when we spoke, he was supposed to start leading the toasts for the vaccine, he said. But “my ICU is still full.”
Many Americans wished “adults” were in charge in 2020. “People who don’t know how to spell tuberculosis have told me they can solve the link between BCG” — a tuberculosis vaccine — “and Covid‑19,” an epidemiologist said. “It takes a certain type of person to think they have more perspective than someone with a PhD,” another academic complained. We’re coming to feel we have to amputate the denialists, the conspiracy theorists, from our body politic — ignore them, deplatform them, cut them loose.
Those who hawk alternative truths are often rank opportunists — cynical media hogs who goad public health experts and leaders to provide evidence that wouldn’t change their minds anyway. But the deep problem is that others sometimes have something to teach us. This is another thing we’ve lost this year: the will to learn from people we hate.
One conspiracy theorist I know is a man I’ll call Joey, which is not his real name. Joey started 2020 as a fairly mainstream Bernie Sanders supporter and ended it believing a cabal of “totalitarian communist despots” would soon target him personally for thought crimes. He acknowledges a mild innate distrustfulness. Joey grew up in New Orleans, the child of immigrant parents who had eight children. Overwhelmed, his parents sometimes neglected him. Unmonitored, he took to roaming Bourbon Street alone at night; what he saw suggested to him a lot of people become dicks in chaotic situations.
This distrustful instinct served Joey in the beginning. His cousin is a nurse. At a large family gathering a couple of weeks after Christmas 2019, she mentioned reports of a worrisome new pneumonia in Wuhan. Joey took her seriously. He began to read online literature about respiratory conditions and zoonotic viruses and obscure reports from Chinese whistleblowers. In early February, he spent a whole day darting to Costcos to get three weeks’ worth of emergency supplies.
In March, Joey saw Americans suddenly begin throwing around statistics, algorithms, and models that claimed to perfectly predict the pandemic’s course. That disturbed him. As a computer programmer, he spends his days working on these kinds of models, and he knew how unreliable they were and how unimaginative even computer analysts could be in foreseeing the bugs in their systems. It also disturbed him how quickly other people rushed to lap him in the marathon he’d been plodding for two and a half months. When the mainstream press took to underscoring the seriousness of the pandemic, he recoiled. He felt they were touting the same kind of sweeping message they’d transmitted in January, only the content had switched — from “don’t overreact” to “do overreact.” He gathered he was supposed to forgive their early lapses because science “takes time,” but also to buy, without questioning, what they were saying right now.
Healthcare workers were criticized for hysteria then taunted for being too upbeat, sometimes by the same people at the same time.
Some of the alternative news sources Joey began following in January switched to theories that corporate hospitals were making money off Covid-19 diagnoses and that Big Pharma would cash in with expensive vaccines. Joey felt that was plausible. He long believed wealthy elites tried to make money off people’s suffering. Take the Sackler family, which a series of recent exposés revealed paid respected doctors to collude with them in addicting people to opioids. Joey felt he was only doing the same thing readers of the New York Times were doing — changing his opinion as time passed.
Like many of us during the shutdown, Joey took to posting more on the internet. In April, he wrote he was worried about the economy, and worried pricey ventilators and vaccines were being flogged over other, cheaper medical interventions. Friends turned on him, telling him he “didn’t have a heart” and “wanted to see people die.” They called him a “conspiracy theorist” and a “Trumper.” Their moral ferocity shocked him. What stung the most was their claim he didn’t care. Joey felt he had cared about Covid-19 earlier than “probably 95% of Americans.” He’d offered on Facebook to share the toilet paper he’d stockpiled with less-ready friends; some took him up on the offer.
We wanted so badly to believe in the anchoring possibility of infallible experts this year — there had to be some of them — that, in our anxiety, we contributed toward driving even some people with serious and proper questions out of the respectable body politic. Told he was disreputable, Joey, bitter, basically ran with it. A feedback loop set in whereby the more people reacted to his opinions with shock or contempt, the more it confirmed his suspicion all mainstream actors were malevolent. He opened himself up to people who suggested Bill Gates was evil, and then to Donald Trump, and then to Lin Wood, who claimed Democrats were using Covid-19 as a bioweapon to infect Republicans.
By the end of the year, the New York Times was describing skeptics like Joey as “paranoid” and “low status” fools who had an unearned “sense of superiority: I possess important information most people do not have.” The thing Joey thought the Times should consider before deciding it had nothing to learn from people like him was that, in the beginning, Joey had possessed important information most people didn’t have. He was one of the first Americans who’d paid attention to the novel coronavirus in Wuhan.
Ramon Antonio Vargas is another pandemic survivor from whom we demanded impossible things. A crime reporter for the New Orleans Advocate reassigned to the Covid-19 beat, Vargas previously felt somewhat insulated from national partisanship. “Nobody disputed New Orleans’s homicide rate,” he said, “nor the basic fact that the death of a boy due to gun violence was some form of preventable tragedy.”
He was blown away by the new scrutiny of his work. Some readers complained he and other journalists weren’t brave enough, that they weren’t charging into hospitals — misunderstanding the limits imposed by HIPAA, America’s health-information privacy act — or weren’t writing enough “human stories.”
Paul Slovic, the social psychologist, told me his research showed that, when faced with what feels like tragedy on an overwhelming scale, “we make rationales to keep our self-images as moral, compassionate people when we’re not able to help. There’s a constant need to balance our guilt.” The people who best preserved their self-image as compassionate, he found, were “those who found somebody to blame.” That may explain much of the fury of 2020. And Vargas found himself the target of anger for not producing Covid-19 stories moving enough to head off partisan disagreement and stop the pandemic. Even the head of a top journalism school mused to me she “would have expected more human depth” in the American media’s Covid-19 coverage — more names, more faces.
What people didn’t understand was the relatives of the dying or dead were often reluctant to talk, Vargas said. The insurgent national emotions that made readers demand more in-depth stories also made reporting them infinitely harder. Relatives of the dead begged Vargas, “Don’t let my loved one die in vain.” But they also asked him not to elaborate on the deceased’s other health conditions or the details of their last weeks, lest some stranger circulate the obituary with the comment, “This person didn’t take Covid seriously.”
The worst day was when he went, amid a spike in New Orleans’ Covid-19 cases, to cover the funeral of a nine-year-old who’d died in gang violence. His editor was insistent on him covering the funeral. Perhaps this story would, blessedly, have an obviously innocent victim and a clear villain. Vargas believes it isn’t an accident the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake became such touchstones last year. Their deaths partly stood in for so many others, including the disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths among people of color, that were harder for the country to acknowledge were rank injustices.
The funeral was held in a packed, tiny church, and Vargas feared for the mourners’ health. But he was also grimly struck how they were all risking their lives to commemorate a life that policymakers had never cared deeply enough about in the first place. That funeral, for Vargas, “was the brokenness of 2020 in one room.”
When he did write heart-wrenching stories, people would email, alleging he must be getting a kick out of small businesses closing or even spikes in deaths because high-drama stories yielded clicks. “Are you happy to write that people are sick?” they would taunt. He laughed resentfully. Then he caught himself. “You kind of heard me chuckle right now,” he said solemnly. “It’s not funny.”
Vargas felt guilty. He still wanted to take his role as a frontline worker seriously and not let the stress get to him. To honor the dead, to be brave. When we first started talking, I asked about his “personal experience” with the pandemic. Only after 50 minutes did he mention his uncle died of Covid-19. “I don’t want to complain,” he said.
The flipside of moral fury is shame, and shame is now everywhere. Slovic told me he felt an unusual degree of free-floating shame this year. He became especially conscious of the large population of unhoused people where he lives in Oregon. “I can spend a day doing academic research on compassion and drive home without stopping,” he told me. “I feel, ‘I can’t stop on every street corner.’ It’s overwhelming. But the question is, how do I keep my self-compassion and continue to believe I’m a compassionate person when I realize, most of the time, I’m driving by people in need?” Almost every individual in a pandemic feels like a failure when it comes to the weight of more than 500,000 dead. The assertion, last April, that we’d all be directly affected by Covid-19 was a promise that nobody would have to experience the moral injury of survivor’s guilt.
Toward the end of December, I asked a group of alumni from my public high school whether they knew someone who’d died of Covid-19. Half of the 100 who answered said no. The respondents who didn’t have a loved one die felt pressured to prove they’d been appropriately proximate to suffering. One of these technically unaffected people had a severe mental health crisis. She said she had panic attacks at home, but if she went out, she felt “immense guilt.” She had “friends that don’t give a shit and are totally unsafe” as well as friends who were “the safest people ever and never left their apartments. Both made me feel guilty.” Living in rural Kentucky, she was admonished by store clerks that she “must not believe in God” when she wore a mask. She loved her town and felt horror to see it “transformed” by anti-maskers.
I also asked, though, whether anyone had a good 2020. I received a flood of private messages. People were hungry to talk about their dirty secret — individually, they’d flourished. Nobody mentioned they’d made more money, though financial benefits accrued this year to high-earning white-collar workers. That would be a boon in the midst of suffering perhaps too shameful to admit even in a DM. But many told me that, socially or emotionally, 2020 had been one of their best years ever. This experience did not fit the storyline. “I’ve had a personally very good year and feel ashamed to talk about it because I’m aware of the pain and suffering all around me,” one person wrote. “I’ve found it so challenging to reconcile my feelings of personal happiness with my policy frustrations,” said another.
A formerly long-distance couple decided to quarantine together and got engaged. Another couple started volunteering with political campaigns online and found it was their calling. Financially strapped people who previously struggled to afford a professional wardrobe felt taken more seriously at work. A woman who spent most of 2020 pregnant was stunned to find how differently her colleagues treated her when “they couldn’t see my big belly, because virtual meetings show you from the neck up.”
Another woman, whose husband is a hospital nurse and who gave birth in the spring, told me that, despite those burdens, the pandemic had been a weird personal blessing because it contained her extremely intrusive in-laws from hijacking her first months with her baby. “Covid-19 held boundaries for me,” she said. Another woman who’d suffered miscarriages could “go to work” online while lying in bed and finally had her first successful pregnancy.
“I’ve had a personally very good year and feel ashamed to talk about it because I’m aware of the pain and suffering all around me.”
Two other people who struggled tremendously in the ordinary world — one, a teacher, has severe ADHD and battles to commute and navigate her physical school building; the other, a social worker, had anxiety in crowds — felt liberated and affirmed in the order to stay home. It turns out the regular world wasn’t designed right for everyone. “I’ve been lowkey thriving,” the social worker said. “But I try not to be obvious about it because I know many people aren’t. I used to sit alone in my apartment and watch TV while people went out. Now I host game streams and parties on a Discord server every night.” Another woman lost her job, and — though she struggled immensely with money — she realized her workplace had been “hostile” and she deserved better.
None of these people wanted me to use their names. On his public Facebook wall, a 36-year-old community-college administrator posted 2020-sucked memes, like the figure skater Tonya Harding before she assaulted Nancy Kerrigan. Kerrigan is labeled “MY PLANS” and Harding is “COVID-19.” Privately, though, he confessed that he’d finally bought weights for his home and “in the last year, I lost about 15 pounds of fat and gained about 12 pounds of muscle. I’d been overweight my whole life. I feel great and, for the first time, I feel like I look great. But if there’s one thing nobody wants to hear about right now, it’s how well all your clothes fit.”
It felt almost sad these people were hiding these triumphs — like its own form of subtle loss, a tiptoeing around the mixed, individual nature of the pandemic experience. Their culture had encouraged them to make lemonade out of lemons, and now they felt they had to be ashamed of it. There were so many articles, nine months ago, about using the pandemic to reexamine your life and make it better. Even in December, the New York Times ran an essay titled “How to Get More from Your Pandemic Bubble.”
“Look to your pandemic pod to inspire and motivate you toward a healthier and happier life,” it said. Ryan Hagen, a Columbia University sociologist who researches Americans’ disaster responses, told me we should be urgently asking ourselves now whether we want to go back to “normal” or whether there weren’t some “magical elements” of the world’s transfiguration we want to retain. But we can’t even propose the question if we’re ashamed to look the pandemic’s complexity in the face and to acknowledge some good things actually happened.
“I’m so tired of testing for Covid,” a friend in New York wrote me recently. He had done it seven times. Despite testing negative each time, he remained unsure if he’d ever had it or not. No tests were sufficiently accurate. His chest hurt badly, and he had a sore throat. He couldn’t find clarity, online, on how likely a sign of Covid-19 a sore throat could be. Everything remained murky.
It felt amazing to him that, a year after the Covid-19 epidemic started in America, he still didn’t know if he’d been part of the experience or not. Ultimately, he wasn’t sure what made anybody a part of the real pandemic experience and gave them the right to say they were there at ground zero. Was it testing positive? Having a live-in family member test positive? Losing a relative? Losing your job? Losing your marriage? Feeling ambiently terrified all the time? Getting hospitalized? Dying?
Some people lost loved ones. Others lost jobs. Others experienced real horror and fear learning about the deaths of strangers. Others lost their confidence going out into the world — the sense that most people will generally surprise you by being friendly and generous. Others lost our hope that the other, virtual world to which we escaped could be anything besides a contempt-ridden cesspool.
There will still be so many ripples of corollary loss — like, for instance, people who suffer from long Covid or people who take their own lives years from now in the wake of all this trauma. When we urgently cite a definitive death toll, we often feel we are stressing how big a deal the American Covid-19 catastrophe has been. Rather, we are radically understating its impact.
Now we have something that sort of resembles what we wanted. One doctor I know calls this spring our deus ex vaccina. We share photo montages of different kinds of people in every state getting the same shot. They promise what the pandemic itself didn’t deliver: connection and a sense of equality.
But “the vaccine isn’t going to be a bright line,” Hagen, the disaster sociologist, told me. “We want it to be.” Because of the vaccine’s slow and uneven rollout and its potentially imperfect efficacy, “there will be a lot of time when some Americans are still living in the pandemic and some are not. And it’s not as if we’re going to walk through this solid door and return to our lives.”
People he knows are already anticipating their 2021 Fourth of July barbecues. But “it definitely will not happen that we’ll all do the Fourth of July like we used to. We’ll still be figuring out how to act around each other post-pandemic, and not everyone will be on the same page. We’ve lost an experience of collective effervescence,” he said, and we feel unsure whether we trust each other enough — to try to reestablish it.
At the start of 2020, the one-year-old son of a friend of mine in Virginia was outgoing and gregarious. Now two, he’s “scared of people,” my friend told me the other day. “When we walk in the path in the neighborhood, if he sees anyone, he hides and cries ‘Mask, mask, where mask?’”
He added, “I can only hope he won’t remember.”