On April 3, 2020, scarcely one month after the pandemic had reached many parts of the world, author Arundhati Roy described it as a portal. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew,” she wrote.
This one is no different, and it represents “a gateway between one world and the next.”
Amid global pain and shock, placing events in a timeline is difficult. Could it have been a full year ago that the then-president said the country would open by Easter? Is spring break really just around the corner, a time that marked the “before” and “after” for the thousands of people in Columbia who attend or work at schools? And memes ask, “How could we be ready for this March when we’re still not over the last one?”
A year ago, March 18, 2020, the first person in Boone County died of COVID-19. Since that initial lightning strike close to home, some of us have sought to distance ourselves from the reality of it while health care and other essential workers never had that luxury. Clinical language tallies the death toll but does little to encompass the sense of loss felt by families and communities.
Perhaps there was a false sense of security in Boone County and the greater Midwest in those early days of the pandemic. What was happening in other countries and in large coastal cities couldn’t come here, couldn’t reach us. Maybe we’d be safer in the interior, with our populations more spread out in smaller cities and towns and rural areas.
Political leaders made decisions that prioritized the economy and jobs. Later, cases surged in Missouri and other Midwestern states and rural areas, just as the places hardest hit in the beginning regained some control over the spread of the disease.
After March 18, nearly two months would pass before the next person in Boone County died. In the first six months of the pandemic, six people died of COVID-19. That number doubled by mid-September and quadrupled before the end of the year.
So far, 83 people have died, taking with them years of wisdom, experience and possibility. It is an incalculable wound to every generation that has lived through the crisis.
And yet, not everyone has lived through the pandemic the same way. “Work from home” has attained some level of cultural supremacy, and conversations about house plants and sourdough bread-baking abound along with more streaming and online shopping. A September analysis found 37% of American jobs could be remote and those were typically the highest paid jobs. Many more Americans have worked outside the home throughout the entire pandemic.
For others, sustainable work — remote or not — remains elusive. National unemployment rates in February were reported at 6.2%, which is down from 2020’s staggering high of 14.8% in April but far from the pre-pandemic level of 3.5%. Globally, more people are being pushed into extreme poverty, with eight out of 10 in this “new poor” statistical group in middle-income countries.
In the U.S., Indigenous, Black and Latino communities have been the hardest hit by economic losses, sickness and death. The outsized harms of COVID-19 underscored institutionalized racism, and protesters all over the country highlighted this the summer of 2020 after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Many marched in masks.
In the fall, emergency approval of vaccines coincided with surging case numbers as a result of holiday travel. In that moment, twin realities competed. They said, “we’re almost at the end/we’re nowhere close.”
One in four American adults have now been vaccinated. By May 1, the new president declared, there should be enough vaccine doses available for every adult. And by July 4, the country should be able to declare independence from the virus.
Getting back to normal, Joe Biden said, depends on national unity.
It is hard to imagine “normal” after so much loss and the pain of discovering how little some people were willing to do to keep other people safe.
Is the normal we hope to return to a world that still contains such staggering inequality?
We can’t move on without having been changed for better or worse, changed in ways we still don’t understand. To not acknowledge the profound shift of the ground upon which we stand, to not hold the memories of those lost in these times, would be a mistake.
Roy concluded her essay last April by writing, “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”
The pandemic has severed us from all that was familiar and forced nations to contend with populaces at risk and economies shuddering to a halt. Fault lines branched out from the initial seismic shock, their effects unknown and reaching far into the future.