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Pandemic Memories

Doug Collins - Sunday, February 28, 2021


The covid pandemic in the U.S. has been going on for a year, now, more or less.

I can remember taking what became my last trip for work at that time: a routine flight to Minneapolis. The first reports of the horrific number of deaths at the Seattle nursing home were just appearing in the national news—images of gurney after gurney of cloth-draped corpses being wheeled out of the facility. Our daughter’s school remained in session, although my wife and I were wondering how long the doors would remain open.

I can remember getting into the Uber for the local airport and feeling that something was not right—that being in close proximity to people was a bad idea and that travel, any kind of travel, was by necessity a recipe for encountering dozens of strangers, any one of whom could be infected. I started counting my encounters and feeling the impossibility of remaining apart.

The driver had on NPR. As he drove we listened to the reports coming out of Seattle—early speculation around the rate of asymptomatic spread, nationwide. Were we already in the crosshairs of the virus? How would we know?

I can remember the roads and the airports being eerily empty and quiet. The everyday hubbub that marks commercial air travel was muted, replaced by a deadening anxiety. I can remember feeling sorry for the TSA agents at the airport who, at that time, were unmasked and wholly vulnerable to the virus—the start of a realization that our frontline workers were like lambs being led to the slaughter.

During the flight a woman coughed. Everyone looked at her. She looked away, mortified.

I can remember the skin on my hands becoming raw from hand sanitizer—the belief then being that the spread was by surface contact, not airborne transmission. One hundred years after the great influenza outbreak during World War I we reacquainted ourselves with the mechanics of proper ventilation. For some reason it occurred to me to crack open the window of all my subsequent Uber rides: an antediluvian response to a perceived threat.

Most of all I can remember the feeling of reality slipping away—of the once unyielding points of reference in my life disappearing on me, one by one. And, in the background, the contemplation of the immediate horror of the possibility of death by suffocation in one’s own fluids, juxtaposed with the contemplation of the more diffuse horror of society grinding to a halt—of not knowing how to function with a remorseless killer on the loose.

Immediately following my trip the company curtailed all travel and sent everyone home. We’ve been wholly remote since and will likely stay that way: the resiliency of the cloud architecture has been a revelation even to its creators in the software industry.

As of today over 500,000 people in the U.S. have lost their lives to covid: an incalculable amount of suffering. Many who fell ill and died had devoted their lives to caring for others. Some of our leaders showed commendable courage in facing the crisis, head on. Too many others proved feckless and weak, however, causing untold deaths through their inaction. Wearing a mask to protect others became a point of contention, not a singular reflection of our collective civic duty. Our forefathers from the Greatest Generation, were they with us today, would weep at our intransigence.

Our experience with covid will define us for generations to come, for better and for worse, both for the carnage it has wreaked upon us and, as important, for how we reacted to the calamitous series of events. Looking ahead, will we experience a renaissance in how we govern ourselves and relate to one another? Or, will we indulge in self dealing and deceit, blaming others for our own lack of fortitude?

Our grief has yet to manifest itself. Our lamentations have yet to be heard. Losing more people than all the combined war dead of the past century will take years to process.

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