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The Great Aftermath
Mass tragedies sometimes have unexpected legacies. What will COVID's be?
About a month ago, my editors at the NY Times Magazine asked if I would write an introductory piece for a special issue they were doing on COVID’s legacy, an essay that might try to think about the pandemic on a longer time scale. The piece I wrote is up on the Times site now, and in the print magazine this weekend. It begins with a question from the historical record:
A mystery has long surrounded the Great Influenza of 1918-19. Why did a pandemic that killed upward of 50 million people, many of them otherwise healthy young adults, leave such a limited imprint on humanity’s cultural memory — especially in contrast to World War I, which killed less than half as many people? Countless novels and films and monuments investigate or commemorate the trauma that the Great War inflicted on modern consciousness, but the Great Influenza, having torn a deadly path around the world for two years, seemed to be forgotten nearly overnight.
The best explanation for this strange lack of cultural scar tissue comes from the advances in public health and medicine that separate us from our ancestors living a century ago:
Most of the people alive during the 1918 outbreak were born during the 19th century, when death from infections was tragically familiar, when losing a third of your children to disease was the norm. To them, the mechanized carnage of World War I, with its fighter planes, machine guns and chemical weapons, was a step change in the history of human violence. A terrible flu virus sweeping through your town and killing some of your friends and family — in an age when it was much more difficult to perceive how global the outbreak was, given the limited scope of most news coverage — didn’t seem all that novel an experience by comparison.
With COVID, the experience is reversed. COVID’s death rate per capita is a tiny fraction of the carnage of WWI, but it is likely to weigh much more heavily in our collective memory than the Spanish Flu ever did, precisely because we have greatly reduced the burden of infectious disease over the past hundred years:
Before Covid, the most terrifying and deadly new virus to attack the United States was H.I.V., which managed to kill 100,000 Americans in its first eight years of spread here. Covid pulled off the same gruesome feat in four months.
The piece goes on to talk about some of the potentially positive outcomes that will emerge from the pandemic. Some of that is science: the mRNA platform, the amplified interest in universal vaccines for both coronaviruses and flu viruses. But it’s not just the scientists who have learned from the outbreak. We’ve also learned an important new skill as a species, what I call in the piece “pandemic mode”:
Imagine, if you can bear it, what happens the next time word emerges of a novel virus devastating a midsize city somewhere in the world. The slow-motion reaction that characterized the global response to the news from Wuhan in early 2020 would be radically accelerated. Even without public-health mandates, a significant part of the world’s population, particularly in cosmopolitan cities that were hit hard in the early days of Covid, would instantly mask up; where possible, workers would switch back to Zoom; unnecessary travel would cease. No doubt some portion of the population would play down the magnitude of the threat or invent a preposterous conspiracy theory to explain it. But a meaningful number of people would switch back into the “pandemic mode” they learned in 2020-21.
I saw a few comments on the Times site that seemed less impressed by this accomplishment than I am. Someone remarked, in effect: sure, but half the population will probably stick their head in the sand and pretend the outbreak isn’t happening. And the thing is: they’re right. Half the population will completely ignore pandemic mode and pretend it’s all a media conspiracy or whatever. But in terms of actual behavior change—wearing masks, staying home from school and work, canceling travel—almost no one shifted into pandemic mode for the first two months of COVID’s spread. Even if a quarter of the population—particularly if that group is disproportionately represented in metropolitan cities—switches into pandemic mode the day the novel virus is first publicized, that will be a massive improvement over what we did the first time around.
At the end of the piece, I turn to the psychological impact of COVID, which ultimate takes me back to a more personal story:
I have a memory from May of this year, taking my 17-year-old son to the Javits Center in Manhattan for his first vaccine, followed by a shopping trip to pick out a tie for his (masked, outdoor) senior prom. At some point waiting in line, I made a halfhearted joke about how we were embarking on the classic father-son ritual of heading out to the mass vaccination site to protect him from the plague. I meant it ironically, but the truth is that for my son’s generation, proms and plagues will be part of the rituals of growing up.
There is a loss of innocence in that, but also a hard-earned realism: the knowledge that rare high-risk events like pandemics are not just theoretically possible but likely, in an increasingly urban and interconnected world of nearly eight billion people. As a parent, you want to protect your children from unnecessary anxieties, but not when the threat in question is a real one. My son’s generation will forever take pandemics as a basic fact of life, and that assumption, painful as it is, will protect him when the next threat emerges. But maybe, if the science unleashed by this pandemic lives up to its promise, his children — or perhaps his grandchildren — could inherit a world where plagues are a thing of the past.
So much of COVID has played out, for me at least, in these very intimate acts and decisions: how to keep your children—or your parents—safe? How to maintain the rituals of growing up—the basketball games and the proms but also just the day-to-day normalcy of hanging with your friends and seeing their faces—while still protecting their health and the health of the more vulnerable people around them? At least for those of us willing to acknowledge the reality of the outbreak, it’s been 20 months of non-stop risk analysis and threat management, for risks and threats that have usually been mysterious and ill-defined.
In a strange way, my wife and I felt a bit more at home in the risk-analysis maelstrom of early COVID, because a few years before the pandemic began, our youngest son had suddenly developed epilepsy as a ten-year-old. Overnight, we found ourselves in a world where one of our children, at any moment, could drop into a grand mal seizure that could be life threatening, particularly if he happened to be on stairs or in water at the time.
One thing you realize very quickly as the parent of a child with epilepsy is how much of the world comes pre-packaged with risk assessments that other people have painstakingly calculated for you: wear your 3-point seatbelts in cars; take this dosage of the medication. But because epilepsy is rare and strangely unpredictable in its effects, my wife and I were constantly finding ourselves trying to calculate risk probabilities on our own. How much of a danger was it to live in a house with stairs, for instance? Could our son surf safely?
Fortunately for all of us, our son responded well to medication and he’s been almost entirely seizure free for more than two years now. But when COVID rolled around, I think my wife and I both had the feeling that we’d seen this film before. Each day became an endless series of risk assessments, made on shaky or nonexistent data. How dangerous was it to ride in an elevator in our apartment building? Should we be wiping down groceries? Could we visit not-yet-vaccinated grandparents after taking a rapid test?
Some of those choices were inevitably going to be murky ones. But we do know quite a bit about how to make decisions in situations where the underlying information is noisy. You can’t be perfect at it, by definition, but you can get better at it. And maybe that’s another potential long-term positive outcome from COVID that would be worth rooting for: that it compels us to teach risk analysis and probability more widely in our classrooms, and to talk about those crucial life skills with our kids. The threats their generation will end up facing are, on some basic level, unknowable. But the tools they’ll need to make sense of them are not.