The pandemic did not truly begin in 2020; it began sometime in November and December of 2019. When the clock strikes midnight tonight and digital calendars tick over from December 31, 2020 to January 1, 2021, we will still be in the middle of by far the largest wave of COVID-19 spread in the US since it reached our shores. In December alone, over 70,000 people have died of this disease. In November we had just over 37,000, in October we had just under 24,000. Over and over again we have learned how quickly things can blow up, and yet we never did really learn this. I doubt that people will begin acting as though they have learned this on January 1, 2021 any more than they have the past three months, to say nothing of the past ten.
I am angry, in case that is not obvious. I’m angry at the complete failure of our leadership and at the people for whom nearly 350,000 bodies and many more sick is not enough evidence that this is serious. But I am also angry at the many, many, many people who talk the talk and yet in their own lives continued to see people outside of their household and travel as though it were just any other year.
This anger held me back from writing a typical year in review post, because true anger is no basis for writing. A good polemic is a wonderful thing, but it is a style, a genre, to be written with an eye to the craft of it. It may tap into a genuine anger on some level, but it does not need to; at any rate writing in anger is about as advisable as texting in anger, or calling in anger, or leaving a voicemail in anger. It always pays to cool off and consider what you want to say, rather than merely lashing out at the nearest target.
Anger has carried me away from my opening point, which was that 2020 is simply a number, a number which contains neither the entire history of the significant events which occurred in its 366 days, nor their endings. But we break time into numbers for the same reason we break anything into numbers; to make it more manageable, and as a byproduct we end up giving ourselves occasion to reflect and look back. I think the kinds of things that we experienced this year are precisely what we need to take a good, long look at rather than moving on.
My anger, like most anger, contains within it a core of guilt. I acted like a fool at the beginning of the pandemic. Even as I wised up, I put people at risk, people I love. I know this and am wary of the knowledge.
In January and February I was essentially oblivious. Catherine was coming to the end of the second trimester of her pregnancy with our second son. I was in the midst of launching the key project that I manage at the job which I had only started the previous June. I was aware of news items about the coronavirus like something in the corner of my eye; in as much as I had thoughts about it, I thought it was something like SARS or the 2013 Ebola outbreak, neither of which resulted in community spread in America and neither of which resulted in many deaths, all told.
Like many Americans, March was a month where the sense of danger seemed to increase rapidly from one day to the next. I flew to Chicago on March 2nd for work. The day that I was to fly—mere hours—I was informed that the most senior person who was meant to be at that meeting had cancelled her flight from Germany because of concerns over the coronavirus. I wavered on whether I should do the same, but decided to simply be diligent in washing my hands during the trip. I did not wear a mask, I did not even consider the possibility. Everyone else came as well. We all made jokes about it the entire time, but there was a distinctly uncomfortable air to these jokes. At one point, during the two or three days we all sat in a small conference room together, someone sneezed and the person sitting next to her practically jumped out of his skin.
The week after that things moved very rapidly. Catherine had an appointment with her OB that Monday, and she asked her whether she ought to switch to working from home. Catherine said “there just aren’t many cases in New York yet,” and her OB, a woman whose default is to tell people not to worry about the many things pregnant women and their spouses worry about, said “stay home if you can. There are many, many more cases than they have been able to document yet.” That marked the moment that we really began to realize we needed to be really taking this thing seriously. Each of us began working from home.
Days later Catherine learned, through a webinar for pregnant women, that major New York City hospitals were considering banning mothers from bringing anyone with them, even partners. We wavered on what to do for what subjectively felt like an eternity but I believe was really only a day. Ultimately we packed up and drove down to northern Virginia, to stay with my parents.
Which meant that we put them at risk. Potentially, we put Virginia and DC at risk by going from New York to the DC metropolitan area, especially after I had so recently flown to and from Chicago. Once there we did not go out except for walks in the quiet suburban streets where my parents live, at a great distance from anyone else. But of course, even then, we were putting my parents at risk. Very shortly after we arrived, I was contacted by a member of my team at work because she had come down with COVID. Ultimately, her husband and young son caught it too, and all three of them experienced severe symptoms, though thankfully they did not require hospitalization.
It was plain, dumb luck that I did not catch it, and give it to my parents and wife and son and brother. Or that Catherine didn’t give it to us, all those weeks we were both commuting by subway and going into enclosed office spaces.
As we worked and my parents babysat Elliot, I began to fixate on the question of how I had failed so thoroughly to see the situation unfolding in front of us. I followed several people who had been sounding the alarm early. Angry with the COVID skepticism that was already being pumped up by the Trumpist wing of the conservative ecosystem, I began to write a hit piece about conservative media’s role in all of this. As I performed the research to back it up, and tested the thesis against several people whose judgment I trusted, however, I quickly abandoned the idea in favor of a broader survey of how the media in general had performed the first three months of the year.
I worked very hard on that research, constructing a timeline of events into which I put links and summaries of news coverage and social media posts. I thought very hard about how to judge something like media performance, and I am proud of the result. Intellectually, and as a writer, I do think that I grew, this year. That is something that is important to me, though perhaps not so very important in the scheme of my obligations and of everything that has gone down this year. But it is important to me. And it is something that I had, for myself.
Max came to us quite quickly, especially compared to his brother. The policy of INOVA Fairfax on that day, April 27th, was to allow mothers one guest, who could stay the whole time but not leave and come back. They also required the mother to take a COVID test before being allowed back into the labor and delivery area. Poor Catherine received one of those early, brain-tickler tests, and said it compared unfavorably with the contractions. Getting someone to administer the test, and then the results, took perhaps two hours (though it felt longer). Though they weren’t saying that labor was imminent, the body language of the nurses all but screamed “this baby is coming any minute!” to me. It was, indeed, very shortly after her negative result came back that Max made his appearance in a dramatic fashion.
Max was our little miracle in the midst of everything. And Elliot has been a wonderful brother. One cannot fault a three-year-old if they are jealous of their parents’ attention when there is suddenly a new member of the household, but he has adored his brother from the start. The biggest problem we had with Elliot was the difficulty he had understanding how fragile babies are; he wanted to hug and grab and play with his little brother right from the start.
We returned to New York two weeks after Max was born. We had stayed with my parents for two months, following the news from New York very closely the entire time. I was terrified to return, but it turned out that New York would be the safest place in the country for the rest of the year.
And of course, all told, we spent much more time with the baby and with Elliot than we would have. That came with all the pain and frustrations and challenges of parenting a three year old, especially as we traded off who would spend time with him and who focus on work, an arrangement that looks much better on paper than in practice, and it doesn’t look great on paper. But of course it comes with untold joys, impossible to tell apart from the frustration in a manner inexplicable to those who have not lived it. As Elliot becomes more independent, he also becomes more anxious to tell us so. He asserts himself in numerous ways, many of them quite small but accumulating, others quite bold and confrontational. It’s incredible but also rather inconvenient, it’s frustrating and heartwarming and heartbreaking. It’s life; his, ours, his rapidly growing brother’s, all bundled together in a great big mess.
That would have been true any year. But we were much more on top of one another this year than we would have been. And in many ways that has been wonderful. Hard, but wonderful.
There is in some ways too much and too little to recount from this point in the story on. Too much, between the crisis that swept the nation and the way our sick political culture twisted this crisis to fit into its pathetic, petty games and narratives, the way the most unfit president in our history, and his followers, have hammered relentlessly on our already battered political institutions. And too little, in that there is little remarkable in the details of how we coped. We were lucky; we had jobs, jobs which we could do from home, jobs which gave us a measure of parental leave after Max was born. We had off again, on again daycare and then Pre-K for Elliot. We haven’t had to face unemployment, or front line work that put us at risk, or the true isolation of those who live alone. It has been hard, but we have also been keenly aware that there are many others for whom it has been immeasurably harder.
I do not count myself as having a particularly naive or idealistic notion of the caliber of our leadership, but even so this year has been truly dispiriting. I was frankly open to forgiving the many failings in March and April; it’s not shocking that officials, who are only human beings after all, were caught flat footed when faced with something they had never known before. But when it came time for public schools to open here in New York, it was clear they had spent the months since the first wave doing absolutely nothing to logistically prepare for this. And when the positivity rate began its inexorable ascent, the mayor essentially admitted that he had no plan for this entirely predictable state of affairs; plan A was for schools to stay open if positivity was low, and there was no plan B. Nor was our city alone in this predicament. And of course now we’re all seeing that just about as much planning has gone into the distribution of the vaccine. The global scientific community has performed wonders this year, but our governors have failed to govern and our leaders have lacked even a glimmer of leadership.
These fine figures will remain with us in 2021. It is true that we will throw out Trump, after a few more weeks of caterwauling on his part and toadying by the Republican members of Congress. That is not nothing. But Biden is very much a product of our leadership class; he is perhaps the canonical product of it. If that is a drastic improvement from Donald Trump, it is still not much comfort after a year of witnessing the measure of this class’s abilities.
I am finishing this an hour and a half before we bid farewell to 2020. Tomorrow we throw out its calendars, we will soon stop catching ourselves putting the wrong year when write down the current date.
Nothing more meaningful than that will have ended, save for an as yet undetermined number of American lives which perished on December 31, 2020.