Did the Year 2020 Change Us Forever?

Did the Year 2020 Change Us Forever?

Which were the pivotal years of the past century? An argument could be made for 1929, when the worldwide financial crash ushered in the crisis that led to the rise of Nazism (and of the New Deal) and, eventually, to the Second World War; for 1945, when the United States emerged from that war uniquely victorious—having, like Hercules, strangled two serpents in its cradle, as Updike thought—and in possession of the most lethal weapon the world had ever known; for 1968, marked by a series of assassinations and domestic unrest that announced the beginning of the end of the American bulwark empire but also, through the awakening to liberation and the soft power of the European left, of the Russian one. Other years raise their hands eagerly and ask for admittance: 1979, with the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ayatollah Khomeini and the war in Afghanistan; 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall; 2001, with its terrorism and counterterrorism. But 2020, the year when a virus came out of China and shut down the world, gets in by acclamation.

Writing the history of an event that happened generations ago is difficult enough. (The 1968 movements in Paris and elsewhere seemed leftist at the time but actually marked the break of young radicals with the Communist Party.) Writing about an episode that happened five minutes ago is hard in another way. Who knows what counts and what doesn’t? Yet 2020 already seems historic—how remote so many of its rituals now feel, from the Lysol scrubbing of innocent groceries to the six-feet rule of social distancing. Andrew Cuomo and Joe Exotic, both superstars of the first pandemic months, have been banished from attention. We speculated about how New York City would emerge from the pandemic: traumatized or merry or newly chastened and egalitarian? Now the city is back, and little seems changed from the way things were when normal life stopped in mid-March of 2020.

The restaurants—can it really be the case that for several months they were shuttered by edict?—are packed tight, the subways tighter, and almost no one wears a mask in either place, not even those of us who swore to keep wearing one in the future, though the virus continues to mutate and spread. The political trajectory of the country appears to be set on the same catastrophic path it was on before the pandemic. One can look up in the evening and see more darkened office buildings, where once sweet monitors shed their aquarium glow, but on the New York streets the last remnants of the pandemic are the ingeniously improvised sidewalk-dining sheds. Nobody knows how much longer they will last.

What did it all mean? There are lots of takes on what happened, many of them plausible even as they contradict one another. A non-crazy case gets made that the period was just as epoch-changing as it seemed: a million people died of the plague in America; schoolkids were deprived of instruction and left behind in ways that may be impossible to remedy. The paranoia that was already rampant in the social-media age intensified, advancing the corrosion of institutional trust. Another non-crazy case gets made that much of the damage was self-inflicted: the schools should never have been closed; the elaborate pantomime of masking may have saved some lives but may not have; and, amid high-handed edicts, the price we paid in the erosion of social trust was higher than it needed to be.

At the same time, a non-crazy case can be made that the restrictions and restraints did not go far enough and were abandoned too soon, so that now, with the pandemic still rampant—very few families have not been through at least two or three cases—we have simply decided to ignore the bug, even as it refuses to ignore us. The cases are less lethal, but significant numbers of people suffer from long COVID—with ongoing uncertainty about whether this is a thing, or several things, or a combination of things and non-things. Many immune-suppressed people argue that we are indulging, in the name of exhaustion, a collective callousness to the welfare of others, particularly the most vulnerable.

The last pandemic to strike the world with such force was the Spanish flu, which started in 1918, primarily afflicting not the old but the young. Tens of millions around the planet died in what the editor of the new Oxford University Press collection “Pandemic Re-Awakenings” says “may have been the most lethal catastrophe in human history.” Many who died were makers of modern consciousness—Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele in Austria, Max Weber in Germany, Guillaume Apollinaire in France. (Joe Hall, a Montreal Canadiens defenseman and Hall of Famer who died during the 1919 Stanley Cup Finals, causing it to be cancelled for the only time in its history, was perhaps not a maker of modern consciousness, but he was a maker of modern hockey.) In the new anthology, a series of historians offer focussed views on what happened then, but the fundamental question they pose is about the oddity of our amnesia: Given the scale of what occurred, why is there so little collective memory of it?

The answer is, in part, that the Spanish-flu pandemic was so braided together with the end of the First World War, which accelerated its spread (most brutally on troopships headed home), that one calamity was buried under another, more photogenic one. The culture of memory of the Great War and its fallen soldiers, which for a time dominated so many public squares and public buildings, drowned out the cries of those who died, equally horribly, from the influenza. We have room for only one story at a time, the historians argue, and in a competition for memorial space—at times a literal one—a military conflict among nations takes political priority over a medical conflict between germs and humanity. An idea of heroism sticks, however grotesquely, to the story of war as it does not stick to the story of infection.

Cartoon by Suerynn Lee

One sees this in Ernest Hemingway’s First World War novel, “A Farewell to Arms,” the tale of a wounded soldier, Frederic, and his love for a nurse, Catherine. Though mentioned in passing in the Oxford anthology, the actual story of Hemingway’s intertwining of war and influenza is complicated and revealing. Having raced to Europe as an ambulance driver, he got word in the mail that his family back home, outside Chicago, had been hit hard by the flu. (It had taken hold at a nearby Navy training station, on Lake Michigan.) His favorite sister, who had fallen ill, wrote to him poignantly, “Dad just called me in his office and looked at my throat and said I had the flu. Oh, bird. My head is beginning to ache, so I think I better go to bed. So good night but tell all the Austrians and Germans you can that I would like to get a good chance at them and see what they would look like when I got through.”

As it happened, the real-life model for Catherine, Agnes von Kurowsky, wasn’t wrested away from Hemingway by a fatal pregnancy; she was simply reposted to a hospital for men suffering from the flu. (She also found another fellow.) Eliding this truth, Hemingway remade this story of the entanglement of epidemic and vocation into a simpler and more romantic story of war and love—an easier tale to grasp. (He wrote a candid short story inspired by von Kurowsky, in which the soldier, at one moment, refuses to kiss the nurse for fear that she might infect him, but it was never published in his lifetime.)

The same process that made all the monuments about the fighting made all the books and poems about the fighting, too. Hemingway did write at length about the flu, dwelling on its ignominy: “The only natural death I’ve ever seen, outside of loss of blood, which isn’t bad, was death from Spanish influenza. In this you drown in mucus, choking, and how you know the patient’s dead is: at the end he shits the bed full.” In “A Farewell to Arms,” Frederic goes back to the war, and the nurse gives him a St. Anthony medal to keep. In real life, Hemingway gave the nurse a St. Anthony medal as she went off bravely to help the influenza patients. Through such details do writers revenge themselves on life. Once again, in literature as in public memorials, there is a figure-ground reversal between war and contagion.

It is perhaps a larger truth that epidemics, being an insult to human agency, are always removed to the background as quickly as we can find a figure to put in front of them. Something similar is happening with the history of the Covid pandemic, whose literature typically makes the medical story secondary to some other story, one with a plainer moral point. Like Hemingway with the nurse, we seek to make what happened less about pathogens and infection and more about passions and infatuation—in our case, often, political passions and party infatuations. Right-wingers were quick to decry the medical establishment for stepping away from its own public-health strictures when the George Floyd marches happened. (The protests took place out-of-doors, which provided at least a medical fig leaf for the rearrangement.) Still, such exchanges happened in all directions—as with the manic libertarian rhetoric that accompanied the resistance to vaccination. We search for some significant figure to place against the motivelessly malignant ground.

And how can we not look for larger social meanings? What if the pandemic, rather than knocking us all sideways and leaving us briefly unrecognizable to ourselves, showed us who we really are? In Eric Klinenberg’s excellent “2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year Everything Changed” (Knopf), we are given both micro-incident—closely reported scenes from the lives of representative New Yorkers struggling through the plague year—and macro-comment: cross-cultural, overarching chapters assess broader social forces. We meet, among others, an elementary-school principal and a Staten Island bar owner who exemplify the local experience of the pandemic; we’re also told of the history, complicated medical evaluation, and cultural consequences of such things as social distancing and masking.

The book is broad in scope, within certain limits; Manhattan north of Chinatown is left unwitnessed. (As the liberal-democratic coalition has become increasingly weighted with highly educated voters, it has become reluctant to make too much of their lives in its chroniclings, perhaps wary of the fact that it is the educated élite who control the chronicle.) Still, we meet many people who make convincing case studies because of the very contradictions of their experience. Sophia Zayas, a community organizer in the Bronx who worked “like a soldier on the front lines,” was nonetheless resistant to getting vaccinated, a decision that caused her, and her family, considerable suffering when both she and her grandmother contracted covid. Klinenberg sorts through her surprising mix of motives with a delicate feeling for the way that community folk wisdom—can the vaccines be trusted?—clashed with her trained public-service sensibility. Throughout, Klinenberg’s mixture of closeup witness and broad-view sociology is engrossing, and reminds this reader of the late Howard S. Becker’s insistence that the best sociology is always, in the first instance, wide-angle reporting. As we flow effortlessly from big picture to small, we learn from both. To be sure, Klinenberg takes a platoon-in-a-forties-movie approach to casting: we feel that we are given one of every New York type, and that all can be redeemed. The Staten Island bar owner, who insisted on reopening his place early despite the rules against doing so and thereby became a kind of Trumpite champion to local libertarians, is treated sympathetically, as a confused working-class hero betrayed by unfeeling élites whose balky rules hindered his enterprise. Yet even if the interdiction on restaurants was, in retrospect, excessive, no one could have known that then. Part of being a good citizen is accepting restrictions on our own freedom for the sake of strangers. We do things like obey speed limits and put on seat belts, even if we are alone, because we recognize that these are rules that benefit everyone.

Klinenberg’s own figure on the pandemic ground is that America’s exceptionally poor handling of the crisis exposed the country’s structural selfishness: our political culture and institutional habits tell people that they’re on their own. Other countries, he writes, “experienced a spike in generalized anxiety when the pandemic started. Their lockdowns were extensive. Their social gatherings were restricted. Their borders were sealed. Their offices were closed. Yet no other society experienced a record increase in homicides. None saw a surge in fatal car accidents. And of course, none had skyrocketing gun sales, either.”

And so, he tells us elsewhere, “we need a social autopsy . . . to identify the underlying conditions and acute shocks that shaped these patterns.” The pandemic exposed the geological faults in American society, which now threaten to split the earth and plunge us inside.

Anyone who is sympathetic to Klinenberg’s concerns—who recognizes how increased crime disfigures politics, or who hates the gun culture that disfigures American life—is bound, at first, to nod at these injunctions. And, indeed, in 2020, many of us were inclined to see societies with greater degrees of social trust—one had to look no farther than the northern border—as superior models in their handling of the pandemic. Even the conservative writer David Frum wrote admiringly about the efficiency and diligence with which the authorities of his homeland—he was born in Toronto—tracked contacts and monitored risks in Canada, in contrast with the anarchic American pattern.

And yet, over the course of 2020, Quebec, which took notably stringent measures, ended up with roughly the same cumulative mortality rate as Florida, Georgia, or Michigan. Although over-all Canadian mortality was meaningfully lower than our own, the social history of unhappy lockdowns and lockdown resistance was similar—the path of the pandemic was not recorded in medical data alone. A truckers’ convoy in Ottawa brought anti-vaccine hysteria to the usually milder Canadian political climate. Fox News may have contributed, from the south, but there was no ducking the same spiral of pandemic-fuelled delusion.

Indeed, to survey the planet through the pandemic years is to see how societies with fundamentally different ways of ordering their citizens’ lives could end up with comparable consequences. Britain, with its creaking but deeply lodged National Health Service, had case rates and death rates similar to those of the U.S., with our laissez-faire entrepreneurial medical system; it also shared the same fury about lockdowns—and saw the same political crises born of the seeming hypocrisy of the overseeing health authorities. The outrage over lockdowns on the part of conservative Britain parallels the outrage over mask mandates in red-state America. Sweden, an improbable libertarian outpost given its social-democratic history, was the least restrictive country in Western Europe. But the rate of all-cause excess mortality does not suggest that Sweden fared worse than its neighbors. About the only indicator on the global dial that clearly shows a better outcome is crudely geographic: it helped to be an island, like New Zealand or Singapore. For most of the world, the virus went its way, mutating cleverly, with the weird mimic intelligence of microorganisms. And so virtue regularly went unrewarded; a Lancet study from last year found that covid death rates in Florida, adjusted for age, compared favorably to those of California. The broader American sickness that Klinenberg rightly deplores—shooting deaths, traffic deaths, violence generally—was entrenched before the specific sickness of Covid arose, and was only marginally slowed or accelerated by it. If anything, the pandemic seemed to act as a brake on populist politics, helping to end both the Trump and the Boris Johnson governments. The pathogen, finally, is an agent without agency—a bug trying to make more bugs, heedless of motives or morals.

A final non-crazy case can be made that human existence is inherently crazy—that is, chaotic and not easily explicable by a single rule. A pandemic that affects billions of people will have billions of specific effects, and they will be grouped into various bunches; even a marginal phenomenon will involve an enormous number of people. It’s in the midst of such numbers that we turn to fiction and poetry, for their specification of experience. What makes Camus’s “The Plague” so memorable—and what made it so popular during the pandemic, despite the fact that it was an allegory of the German Occupation of France—is that in his plague people are so particular. It is a seductive mistake to say that the pandemic X-rays their souls. What happens in “The Plague” mostly happens through happenstance: strong people die, weak people cope, the average become exceptional.

“Oh, yeah? If you love apple juice so much, why don’t you marry it, divorce it twelve years later, and then run into it at parties and tell it it’s looking well?”

Cartoon by Emily Flake and Rob Kutner

In the pursuit of that kind of pandemic particularization, we now have “Fourteen Days” (Harper), a round-robin novel written by many illustrious hands—including Dave Eggers, John Grisham, Erica Jong, Celeste Ng, Ishmael Reed, and Meg Wolitzer—all left cozily anonymous in the linked storytelling. (You must turn to the back to see who did what.) With a wink at Boccaccio’s Florentine narrators, filling their time with stories as a plague rages, these modern storytellers do their thing on the roof of a somewhat improbably run-down building on the Lower East Side, where they meet by evening to share tales and memories.

Each storyteller is identified by a single signifier—Eurovision, the Lady with the Rings—and the stories that the speakers unwind (in a way properly reminiscent of the Decameron itself) leap wildly off topic, with the morals of their tales and the pandemic itself almost invisible. An apron sewn in a suburban home-economics class becomes the subject of one narrative. Another storyteller recalls an art appraiser’s trip to the country and a scarring revelation about the wealthy collectors he is visiting: they keep the lid of their dead son’s coffin visible as a memento of their pain. (“At every meal it had been there, hidden, present. It was the only object in the house that was truly theirs.”) A comedian with dated tastes and old-fashioned sex jokes suddenly appears, talks about his act, then vanishes. The others wonder whether he has jumped off the roof. But nobody is eager to go down to the street to see.

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