For a while, I wondered why it was called the “novel” coronavirus. There wasn’t much novelistic about it: no plot, no hero, no ending. But COVID-19 was indeed novel in the sense that we’d never seen anything like it. We had no context, no playbook, no clue.
One year ago Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Also one year ago, the Berkshires registered its first community transmission COVID-19 case, Rick Bua, a retiree in Clarksburg. Since then, more than 540,000 Americans have died, including over 260 in the Berkshires. Rick, bless him, is still with us.
We didn’t see this thing coming, were slow to respond and still aren’t quite sure what hit us. Nonetheless, we stumbled forward, searching for meaning and toilet paper. We found ourselves dealing with loss — of our freedom, our sense of security and far too many loved ones. We had to find new ways to work, learn, shop, socialize and grieve.
Millions of U.S. jobs were lost and businesses closed, some for good. Untold numbers of kids fell behind in school. Cases of serious anxiety and depression rose alarmingly. More than 60 percent of adults said they were drinking more alcohol than a year earlier. Domestic violence soared.
We made a few mistakes. Our political leaders were more worried about spooking the markets than stockpiling protective gear. They didn’t impose masking and social distancing requirements soon enough. They botched testing and contact tracing. And we mostly let them get away with it.
But those blundering Pollyannas got one thing right: They swallowed worries about deficits and gave money to hard-hit families and employers. Meanwhile, hospitals figured out how to keep more patients alive. Researchers leveraged new ideas and came up with vaccines in months, instead of the usual years. That experience may help us develop vaccinations against HIV, rabies, the Zika virus and, someday perhaps, even cancer and heart disease.
We learned some lessons. Trust science, but don’t underestimate ignorance. Even now, some people refuse to behave responsibly, and some states are opening up way too early. As a result we may well suffer another wave of new cases in the coming weeks. Our long national nightmare isn’t quite over.
We learned the precariousness of life. We’re minding our business, and suddenly we’re feeling like hell, running out of money, losing our grip. As an old friend from high school e-mailed me this week: “One day you’re loving your bubble, doing workouts, baking banana bread and going for long walks. The next day you’re drinking gin for breakfast and missing people you don’t even like.”
We learned the importance of those old friends, of family and neighbors. Also, the danger of living alone and of loneliness in general. Perhaps most important, we learned the healing power of kindness, the strategic value of cutting each other some slack. Let’s not lose that habit.
Life is starting to look better. New cases are down to about 50,000 a day, from 250,000 at their peak in January. Nearly 20 percent of Americans have received at least one vaccine dose, with 30 percent expected to be vaccinated by the end of next month. Kids are going back to school. Shoppers, restaurant patrons and even moviegoers are venturing out as rules are relaxed. By this time next year, life should be close to ... this time last year.
And yet, life will never really be the same. Many of us will keep working from home, at least part-time. We’ll still shop there, too, and stream much of our entertainment. Our kids will almost surely use more technology to learn; we’ve pretty much lost the war to keep them off their devices, so why not make the most of it? Indeed, it’s apparent that doing stuff virtually can be easier, faster and cheaper for us all, as well as better for the planet.
Of course, nothing will fill those half-million holes in our lives, or end the lingering side effects that many COVID survivors thought they’d be over by now. Those stimulus checks will never make up for all the income, the opportunities, the time and the human contact that we’ve missed.
But we will again know peace, stability and, of course, hugs. Absent from our lives for one whole year now, these joys will be all the more delicious when they return. That experience will be novel, in the best sense of the word.