This Nightmare Anniversary Should Remind Us It Didn’t Have to Be This Way

COVID-19 was already here a year ago today, and already spreading across the U.S., with more than 1,000 confirmed cases and dozens of deaths on the books. Still, consensus has settled on today as a proper marker for the one-year anniversary of the long, grinding, lethal nightmare we have endured, and continue to endure.

One year ago today, the World Health Organization officially labeled the crisis a “pandemic,” but most people I’ve spoken to don’t remember that specifically. Today became “Shit Got Real Day” for most of them when it was announced that actor Tom Hanks and his wife had been diagnosed. Later in the evening, the NBA went up in flames, basically calling off the season just before tipoff of a Jazz–Thunder game in Oklahoma City.

The basketball fiasco coughed up its first COVID villain not named Donald Trump. Two days before the season was suspended, Jazz center Rudy Gobert ran around a packed press room and touched every microphone with his bare hands, an act of witless defiance that endeared him to the same subset of the population that sacked the Capitol building the following January.

Two days later, Gobert was diagnosed with COVID, and his teammates, opponents and everyone who went near those microphones suddenly found themselves in the valley of the shadow of death. Gobert’s behavior and subsequent diagnosis were the prime impetus for curtailing the season, and all the other major sports leagues — college athletics as well — almost immediately followed suit.

One year ago tonight, then-President Trump gave a speech that forecast exactly how he planned to let half a million people die because he feared looking weak and culpable. He announced, “The virus will not have a chance against us…. Our future remains brighter than anyone can imagine.” That speech set the tone for what would be his final year in office: His behavior was horrifying and not at all surprising in equal measure. He carried that tune to his last day in the building, and beyond.

“I needed a president to tell me about the availability of testing for the virus, about deliberate actions taken to contain the spread, about social distancing and other preventative measures, about preparedness for a disruption that may last weeks,” I wrote after Trump’s address a year ago. “I needed to know there was a steady hand on the wheel, if only for a few minutes. I needed to know the facts if I am to properly protect my people, and by proxy my community. Of course, this president let me down. Donald Trump’s barefaced unreliability is the single most reliable aspect of his existence.”

Thus began the silent spring. Hospitals filled to bursting with the desperately ill, and medical workers found themselves wearing garbage bags and used Lysol-dipped masks because nobody was in charge and everything was someone else’s fault. The schools emptied, and millions of children found themselves trapped at home like bugs in a bottle. Parents began to buckle under the strain of working and schooling from home.

By April, business leaders and some Republican governors were pushing hard for a return to normal, because capitalism cares not one fig for your well-being. You, me, we: All replaceable in the clockwork of profit and “growth.” Things loosened up over the summer, a false dawn belied by the fact that the U.S. led the world in infections per capita. Thanksgiving and Christmas stoked the flames, and this past winter saw the worst days of this pandemic stack up like bodies in a cold storage truck.

There seems little merit in cataloging my own personal damage after this year. I am alive and uninfected, at least for now, which at times feels miraculous. At some point my number will come up and I will get the vaccine. My daughter has shown me what resilience looks like, and I am grateful for that beyond measure. Perhaps I will get sick, and perhaps I will die, but not today, probably.

Millions of people in hyper-affected communities of color cannot say the same. Nearly 30 million people in the U.S. were infected and survived over the last year. Now, only God knows how many face what is being called “Long COVID,” a debilitating post-infection barrage of brutal symptoms that simply will not abate. Once this is over — if it is ever over — those untold thousands of “long-haulers” will be forced to live with the damage in a country that has a grim knack for ignoring and underserving the disabled.

Meanwhile, even those of us who did not fall ill are experiencing the impact of the past year. Although I have not experienced the worst of it by far, my mind is not right. Specifically, I am forgetting things I once knew by rote. I took my car to the car wash yesterday to scrape the last of winter off, and forgot how to do it for a minute. I’ve run my car through the wash a dozen times since I got it — New Hampshire road salt eats cars — and it’s always the same: Aim left front wheel into groove, pull up until told to stop, put car in neutral, and wait for the scrubbing octopus to attack as I am pulled through the process.

Yesterday, I stared at the gear shift for a long moment after I’d grooved the wheel, and put the car in park, thinking it was neutral. I had forgotten where neutral was on my shifter. The wash tried to pull my car into the water, but because it wasn’t in neutral, my whole front axle was nearly torn off. I jolted and threw it into the proper gear while the wash attendant looked at me like I was some strangely ignorant species of bug. I hid my face as I was finally pulled into the maw.

That kind of thing has been happening to me at increasing intervals lately, and I am not alone. “I can’t stop noticing all the things I’m forgetting,” writes Ellen Cushing for The Atlantic. “Sometimes I grasp at a word or a name. Sometimes I walk into the kitchen and find myself bewildered as to why I am there. (At one point during the writing of this article, I absentmindedly cleaned my glasses with nail-polish remover.) Other times, the forgetting feels like someone is taking a chisel to the bedrock of my brain, prying everything loose…. Everywhere I turn, the fog of forgetting has crept in.”

A scrap of Pearl Jam verse wafts through my head often these days: “And to this day, she’s glided on / Always home but so far away / Like a word misplaced / Nothing to say, what a waste…” I find it a fitting epitaph for 2020: Always home, so far away, a word misplaced, what a waste.

Even with three different vaccines cascading (with irregular and racially disparate availability) into the population, even with much of the U.S. finally taking seriously the necessity of wearing masks, and even as the winter gives way to spring, I am nowhere near feeling a sense of optimism for the future.

All across the country, state governments that should know better are loosening COVID restrictions exactly, precisely when they should be holding fast. The variants are out there, and COVID is as cunning and ruthless as anything humanity has ever encountered. Quite simply, we as a nation are perfectly capable of screwing ourselves out of all this progress. Some experts say that at least another year must pass ensconced in these fearful doldrums before anything like “normal” comes sniffing around again.

Fear. That is what I will remember, always. Like a thrum below the sternum, a flutter in the blood, fear has been my dismal resting state this year. Fear for myself, my family, my friends, my country and my planet. There is no escaping or assuaging it, because I could be sitting here infected right now and not know it. I feel like $100 and it doesn’t matter a damn. It is impossible to rest, really rest, with this shadow on me.

Fear, and sorrow. A fathomless woe yet unspeakable. Someday, perhaps, I will find the words to explain it. I am not nearly there. There is still a vice around my heart, and sometimes I have to remind myself to breathe.

It did not have to be this way, and the ones who made it this way have raked hundreds of millions of dollars off the people they duped into believing it isn’t actually this way at all. I will never forget that, I will never forgive it, and I await a reckoning the way my little girl anticipates Christmas on the balls of her feet.

One year later, with nearly 530,000 dead and almost 30 million infected, I recall what Trump said a year ago yesterday: “It will go away, just stay calm. Be calm. It’s really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen.”

What a waste.