Will we want to remember the last two years once it’s all over?
One of the most striking things about John Barry’s book on the 1918 “Spanish” Flu pandemic, The Great Influenza, is what happened, or actually didn’t happen, after the pandemic had ended.
The 1918 pandemic was clearly a defining event in millions of people’s lives. Maybe a third of the human race caught the disease. Something like 100 million people died worldwide— likely more than died during the Black Death in the 1300s. Over 675,000 Americans died in a country with less than one-third the population of the U.S. today. And the disease tragically targeted children and young adults.
Yet, despite all of this, after it was over, the 1918 pandemic just… disappeared from the popular imagination. No great novels or memoirs were written about it, no movies or plays produced. Popular culture basically ignored the flu, and so did most historians for the next few decades. People didn’t seem to want to talk about it once it was over. In the words of historian Alfred Crosby, it was a “forgotten pandemic.”
I’m starting to understand why.
What do we remember?
I’m willing to bet that we’ll memory-hole our current pandemic just like the survivors of the 1918 flu did. These two years (and please, God, let it be just two years) won’t show up in a lot of books, movies, and TV.
Do you think, in a few years’ time, you’ll have an appetite for watching a TV show set in 2020, where the main characters learn to use Zoom, homeschool their kids, and talk about who is fully vaccinated? Will you ever, ever, want to have a conversation that includes the words “herd immunity” or “spike protein” again? I feel like the first time I see a TV character in a mask, my PTSD will kick in and I’ll lunge for the remote.
We choose to remember some events and not others, after all, both in our personal lives and as a society. If you asked an average American to list the most important events of the last century, they would probably tell you about a collection of wars and political events, with a few other things thrown in. A 2016 Pew poll that asked Americans to name the most important events of their lifetimes was topped by September 11, Obama’s election, the “tech revolution,” John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the Vietnam War.
What do most of these things have in common? They make a good narrative. There are turning points and key moments; there are heroes and villains. At the core of each of them is human agency. Think about 9/11 — Osama bin Laden masterminded terror attacks, and George W. Bush’s United States responded by transforming our own society and invading two countries.
Our cultural memory of the events around 9/11 has heroes (remember how we lionized cops and firefighters?), people making life-and death decisions (flight 93), dramatic set pieces (George Bush with his bullhorn on the rubble), and dramatic consequences for the United States and the world (two wars, thousands dead, trillions spent, a new understanding of the balance between security and liberty, etc.).
But to live through a pandemic, as we’ve found, is simply a long and uncertain slog. There’s very little narrative shape to it — for most of us, just day after day in sweatpants. It consists primarily of waiting; if you’ve been lucky, the defining experience of the pandemic has been deferred plans.
A giant event that made life smaller
Even though it’s been a huge, tragic global event, most people’s experiences of the pandemic have been small, and who wants to remember when life became smaller? American pandemic life has become smaller in a number of ways.
Outside of hospitals, there’s been very little heroism. Even the heroics we’ve seen from medical professionals have been a form of grim endurance, rather than amazing feats. It’s incredibly admirable, but not the stuff of a grand narrative — there doesn’t seem to be a lot of drama, just sadness, exhaustion, and burnout.
I doubt there will be many hospital dramas set in the age of COVID, in which exhausted doctors try in vain to save COVID patients that could have saved their own lives with a free vaccine. We’ve tried to manufacture other forms of pandemic heroism — remember “essential workers?” — but they’ve been pretty transparent efforts to justify the risks we forced others to take in order to make our own lives more convenient.
There hasn’t been a whole lot of leadership from our elected officials. Trump, of course, was cartoonishly stupid and short-sighted during his time as our pandemic president. But the Biden administration, though thankfully in touch with reality, has also struggled to deal with the pandemic. It’s not just America.
Governments around the world have found that there’s no clear formula to dealing with the virus; most have performed disappointingly. At this late stage, most of our leadership seems to be slouching toward letting the disease wash over the population; new attempts to seriously slow the spread of the disease seem to be nonstarters.
There’s been plenty of villainy during the pandemic, but it’s been of a small, uninteresting variety. There’s no imposing human enemy motivated by a persuasive ideology. It’s just that millions of Americans, including a depressing number of our political leaders, have demonstrated that they are willfully ignorant, proudly selfish people with poor critical thinking skills and limited moral imaginations.
Our society has proved itself to be small-minded and not up to making collective sacrifice for the common good. It’s grubby, disappointing, and sad, but it’s not very interesting.
The ultimate enemy, the virus, doesn’t make for a great narrative, either. It has no goals; it’s just a self-replicating bundle of genetic material. The best way to avoid or defeat it is to do very little. Who gets COVID and who doesn’t — and, before vaccination at least, who got a life-threatening case of COVID and who didn’t — feels pretty random and meaningless.
Even at this late stage of the pandemic, there’s still a lot of suffering, but it’s mostly self-inflicted; people who couldn’t tell the difference between conspiracy theories and reality are dying. It’s tragic, but in a small way.
There doesn’t seem to be the prospect for “victory” against the pandemic — just the mitigation of risk, the marginal reduction of suffering. That’s not something you’d make a movie about.
The pandemic has made most people’s individual lives smaller. Less travel, fewer moments with friends and family, fewer of the things that we prioritize when we remember our lives. We’ve devoted more of our mental energy to the boring, exhausting process of assessing risk — is it worth going to that restaurant?
Do I wear a mask at the grocery store? Should I go to that party? — leaving less time for, well, interesting thoughts. For many people, the pandemic has been a bit of a fog — killing time, entertaining ourselves, trying not to despair or burn out, hoping it’ll be better when this is all over.
We’ve become emotionally smaller, too. A huge percentage of Americans have spent big parts of the last two years stewing in some sort of futile outrage. Whether they’ve decided that their local public-health officials are totalitarians, or had murderous thoughts every time they see somebody with their mask under their nose, Americans have spent a lot of time feeling angry and anxious, with no clear outlets for those frustrations. It’s been a dark place to be; I’d imagine we’ll be glad to be rid of it.
Maybe someday my grandchildren will ask me what it was like to live during the pandemic. I’ll probably answer that it was scary, uncertain, and boring. I’ll tell them that it was a disappointing time to be an American. I’ll say that, through a combination of luck and caution, my family made it to vaccination and managed to avoid serious illness.
I’ll struggle to articulate to them the combination of stress, exhaustion, loneliness, and frustration I felt. By this point, my grandkids’ eyes will glaze over with boredom.
Then they’ll ask me what 9/11 was like, and I’ll have a much better story for them.