Have We Really Learned Nothing From the Pandemic?


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On New Years’ Eve 2019, Americans celebrated the advent of the roaring ’20s with fireworks and champagne, amid ominous news alerts from China. Surely that virus would stay on the other side of the planet. I cringe at how entitled we felt then. Covid-19 has now wiped out more than a million of us (by far the worst record on Earth when it comes to wealthy countries). Up to a third of all survivors suffer the sometimes disabling effects of long Covid, with implications for society that will outlast the pandemic—if it ever ends.

I’d like to believe we’ve learned a lesson about our species-wide vulnerability, our planetary connectedness. But in fact, we seem more atomized and arrogant than ever. The pandemic arrived just as technology was driving us collectively mad and pushing us further into our black mirrors.

Researching and writing a book about the science and politics of the pandemic, I lived with it up close and personal. But my book’s last page wasn’t the conclusion for me—or anyone else. Here I offer my personal Covid tale, organized in three acts only because my storyteller instinct demands a beginning, middle, and end… when in truth, there is no end, not yet anyway.

Act 1: The Ides of March

My “last normal thing” (as such activities would come to be called) before the first pandemic lockdown was to attend a birthday party in New York City in March 2020. Covid-19 was already causing moderate to severe panic among our crowd, but no one we knew was dying… yet. We didn’t know enough to wear masks. There were no tests yet. The hostess assured us all that there would be plenty of hand sanitizer around. Some invitees didn’t come, but a surprisingly large number of us showed up. A few already had coughs. Others would end up sick with fevers within weeks—by which time the idea of standing within breathing space of anyone but immediate family members already seemed unthinkable.

A few days after the last normal thing, our kids were sent home from college and high school. Survivalism kicked in hard. My husband, the kids, and I left the city the very next day for upstate New York, holding our breath in the elevator on the trip down to the car. We abandoned a neighborhood that, within weeks, would turn out to be among the most ravaged in the United States.


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