In 1989, science historian Charles Rosenberg wrote that "as a social phenomenon, an epidemic has a dramaturgic form."
Rosenberg was analyzing the AIDS crisis, but his formulation about how cultures absorb contagion remains true decades later.
"Epidemics start at a moment in time," he argued, "proceed on a stage limited in space and duration, follow a plot line of increasing and revelatory tension, move to a crisis of individual and collective character, then drift toward closure."
We have experienced months of tension, and weathered crisis after crisis during COVID-19. But between the opening act and closing curtain, where are we in the drama of the coronavirus pandemic now?
The United States crossed a grim milestone at the beginning of this month, with the number of COVID fatalities surpassing 700,000. That is more than the 675,000-person toll from the 1918-19 influenza pandemic — a staggering comparison given that even though the American population is more than three times larger today, we also enjoy considerably more advanced medicine.
There are many lessons in that significant number of deaths, few of them hopeful. Approximately 100,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID since the beginning of the summer. Yet by April 19, every adult in the U.S. was eligible for vaccination. Too many have declined, and too many died, with the majority of those recent deaths occurring among those who refused the shots, according to expert estimates.
UNDERSTANDING OUR LOSSES
Tragic, too, is the fact that we could have moved more quickly toward the waning moment of this pandemic had vaccination been adopted earlier. Instead, America just endured a deadly summer, one whose cost has been felt from coast to coast. Here in New York, more than 57,000 total COVID fatalities have been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including thousands on Long Island.
We are still processing that great loss — of parents, neighbors, friends, elders, sons and daughters. We are still grappling with the way the pandemic hit certain groups hard — essential workers, lower income people, communities of color, and seniors. In the coming years, those deaths will represent a hole in censuses and family reunions, a premature loss of so much human knowledge and life and love.
COVID has taught us nothing if not humility. The pandemic has taken surprise twists and turns, including the rise of the delta variant. But at least for now, COVID metrics are beginning to trend down, even as vaccinations too slowly tick up. Long Island and in New York in general are doing better than many, perhaps well enough to fend off or dampen future big surges. It’s possible that mandates for vaccination and the natural course of the disease will change the narrative, making October’s deadly milestone a solemn turning point, with better days ahead.
If that is so, we will indeed be drifting toward closure in this macabre spectacle from which none among us can willingly exit the theater. And in that closure lie other possibilities: the chance that we’ll begin to heal, or even forget these difficult years.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
We must guard against substantial forgetting — the kind that is all too possible after bouts of contagion. It has happened in the past, with periodic diseases leaving less obvious impressions on cultural memory than wars or natural disasters or economic catastrophes. Perhaps there is something protective about this reality: We do not wish to memorialize something so hard to escape yet so individually and viscerally experienced. Scenes of death on a battlefield are much easier to explain or memorialize than those of patients alone in hospital beds, struggling to breathe.
It will certainly be a blessing to forget or unlearn parts of COVID: ventilators, social distancing, daily infection counts, countless masks, the caution so many of us have developed around other people, the lurking possibility that a crowded room can be a dangerous place.
But the conclusion of this pandemic can’t mean another thoughtless descent into a new Roaring Twenties, as happened after the 1918-19 flu. As was true then, hard times may follow. And the hard questions that brought us to this point will not disappear: What do we need to do to keep ourselves safe? What do we owe each other? Why have we lost trust in so many institutions? Why did the most powerful nation on earth mobilize so slowly, so partially, and why are we still so divided, when previous national emergencies forged unity? Why, some 18 months into this pandemic, are we still struggling with an effective response?
Only by answering these questions and finding solutions can we accomplish a closure worthy of the name. If we don't, we'll be hard pressed to keep the next pandemic at bay.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.