Monday, March 15, 2021

COVID-19: An Impressionistic History of the First Year of the Emergency

A year ago this week, the reality of COVID-19 hit full force for Americans with the declaration of a national emergency and a ban on non-US citizens traveling from Europe.

Virtually no aspect of life—at the workplace, at home, at “third places” that bound together society—went unaffected.

During this time, while one day seemed to blur into the next, a whole way of life was being transformed over the long term.

These are my recollections of what I directly experienced or heard from others in the Northeast, one of the original pandemic areas in the U.S. I am writing not just for future readers who won’t be able to understand what happened, but also for those now who have lost some memories of aspects of our lives in this time.

In Manhattan, where I was working then, company such as mine watched, with growing concern, in late February and early March as the number of cases and deaths rose. In short order:

*Industry members suddenly backed out of events, afraid to travel by plane or linger in enclosed spaces for prolonged periods.

*Hand sanitizers began to appear on counters all across offices.

*Workers looked askance at anyone veering within six feet of their desks, rolled their eyes if they heard of a colleague exposed to the virus coming into the office, and came into the office in decreasing numbers as management offered the option of working from home.

*Management, after listening to national and local officials, announced, after a day of testing, that employees would work from home till further notice.

*Local newspapers began reporting on how your town was a “hot spot” or “epicenter,” even amid a state that was one of the first—and worst—hit by the pandemic.

*Morning buses, once filled to capacity—even sometimes with commuters standing in the aisles—were now all but empty, even during rush hour.

*Company executives told employees that they were living in “unprecedented times. Nobody could have foreseen this.”

*Employees speculated whether major recent expenses, such as furniture bought for a new move, might have been well-advised, given the subsequent hit to business.

*Employees in mass Zoom sessions looked like The Hollywood Squares, only with considerably more unglamorous people in casual wear replacing the celebrities on the old game show.

*The President repeatedly told the nation that the pandemic “is going to go away.”

*Seemingly everywhere, in rapid succession, supermarket and retail shelves were progressively emptied—of masks and other personal protective equipment, ventilators, drugs, toilet paper, meat, shoe varieties—and everyone prayed for a vaccine.

*Cursing and screaming matches occurred at supermarkets, as some customers ignored cashiers’ request to wear masks or crowded into the personal space of other customers online.

*Virtual wars erupted on Facebook among longtime friends, with quarrels centering on the true count of COVID deaths.

*Many states allowed liquor sales for fear of withdrawal symptoms by alcoholics, with some governors saying that revenues from marijuana legalization might help offset those lost to COVID-19.

*Obituaries shifted during the week and, in the case of the Sunday paper, greatly expanded in column inches—as the bereaved, with no possibility of receiving visitors at final services, chose to disclose loved ones’ deaths on the day of the week when the items would be most read.

*Manhattan, emptied of tourists and office workers, became a ghost town.

*An obnoxious new phrase was coined—“The New Normal”—even though nobody could figure out what it was or how long it would last.

*Businessmen across multiple professions griped about the unfairness of it all—why they were singled out for closures when other industries weren’t so affected.

* “Curbside pickup” became the only viable option for restaurants that, if not closed completely by state law, were forced to operate with limited capacity.

*Self-checkout lanes became more prominent in supermarkets and discount department stores, supposedly to foster safety—but leaving at least one shopper suspicious that the move was a Trojan horse to reduce the need for cashiers.

*Technostress was experienced in multiple settings—not just at companies forced virtually overnight to crank up digital operations, but also among workers at home, unable to get online or to get rapid help from overwhelmed MIS personnel.

*After a few weeks, executives announced limited furloughs—and the fear grew among remaining employees that more extensive layoffs might be in the offing.

*After a few more months, that fear was realized, as mass terminations occurred—with employees first requested by e-mail to stay near their computers and phones, then informed in calls with executives and human resource consultants hired for just this eventuality that they were being let go.

*Unlike times past, COVID-induced isolation meant that terminated employees could not gather with colleagues for last dinners, drinks, or hugs.

*Former co-workers, with neither a job nor even the need to show up at any office, left the city. And now, you thought more than ever of these Billy Joel lyrics: “Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes/I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again.”

*Terminated employees over age 50 not only faced massive competition for fewer remaining jobs, but also the daunting prospect of age discrimination.

*Friends begged off appearing on Zoom calls because of “COVID-15,” the weight gained during the emergency because of physical inactivity.

*A new form of litter appeared on city streets: discarded masks.

*Cities and states struggled with how to reopen schools—particularly when young people flouted social-distancing restrictions by holding parties that became super-spreader events.

*Librarians tried to maintain services, even with irate patrons who hurled (possibly COVID-infected) spittle in their direction.

*Friends told you on the phone that, after a few symptoms, they were terrified that they had contracted COVID.

*Relatives wrote from across the Atlantic of fierce outbreaks even in rural villages, as your ancestral homeland went into lockdown.

*Sports were played despite shortened seasons, simulated crowd noise, and contests affected by players who had come down with the disease, despite widely publicized precautionary measures.

*Weddings were delayed, and delayed again.

*Fitness buffs, unable to use gymnasiums, exercised outside, as long as weather permitted.

*Zoom religious services replaced the in-person Sunday masses attended by families for decades, with a progressive hollowing out of interior spiritual peace occurring with each week.

*Situation comedies of one’s childhood—“Bewitched,” “The Munsters” and “The Andy Griffith Show”—became more of a go-to option, a kind of electronic bath in which to wash away anxiety.

*Spring dragged into summer, summer into fall, and fall into winter before vaccines became available, if only on a limited basis.

*Economists began talking up a possible burst of renewed business activity in the near future, while epidemiologists cautioned about letting our collective guard down as mutations of COVID-19 began to spread.

*The end of winter brought talk of “pent-up demand.” But “pent-up frustration” might be an equally accurate description of what so many were feeling.

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