A famous C.S. Lewis quote begins, “You can’t go back and change the beginning …”
But what if you could?
Voila! It’s one year ago, March of 2020, and the World Health Organization is about to tell the planet that COVID-19 is a “pandemic.” It is the start of a war that will feature countless battles. Many will suffer. Many will die. Many will wish we knew things sooner.
Here then are some things we could warn our 2020 selves about:
America, we are going to lose almost as many people in this war than all the combat deaths from World War I, World War II and Vietnam combined. Take it seriously.
We are also about to have no clue, at the beginning, of how to win it. Take that seriously, too.
The most innocent of settings are about to turn deadly. Cruise ships will infect thousands. Weddings will become superspreaders. Elderly people, our most precious resource of love, wisdom and experience, are about to become the most vulnerable targets.
We won’t know exactly how this virus started, and we’ll be denied certain critical information. As a result, we are about to embark on a series of decisions, some of them hasty, some of them dire, many of them coming from microwaved science or political hysteria. We should be skeptical. And we should not punish people who express their skepticism, because many “experts” will be proven wrong.
We are about to be warned, by our top health officials, that between 100,000 to 240,000 Americans may die from this disease. That will prove way too low. We are about to be warned, by places as lofty as the New York Times, that 2.2 million Americans will die based on a British model. That will be way too high.
We are about to be told that you can only contract the disease if someone is sneezing or coughing. That will be wrong. Delivery boxes, we’ll be told, will need to be sanitized and left alone for hours. That’ll be wrong, too.
We are about to be told by the government’s top medical expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, that masks are unnecessary and in fact, ineffective. He will change his tune on this.
And we’re about to be told by the current president, Donald Trump, that the whole thing might one day magically disappear. He will change his tune on this as well.
Even death is political
Be mindful, future selves, of the president in this war. He will turn it into an opportunity to embellish himself. He will say a lot of wild things, including a weird suggestion about disinfectant. He will boast and brag and make preening predictions about victory, suggesting an amazing Easter with the whole thing in the rearview. Eventually, he will slink off the stage, overwhelmed by the power of this enemy.
It will destroy his chances of reelection. Critics will attack. Pundits will cluck their tongues. Fact-checkers will dismantle his every sentence. Most of it will be deserved. He will brazenly defy this, go unmasked whenever there are cameras, and ultimately contract the disease himself. By that point, discourse will be so poisonous, that some Americans — including a former staffer to President Barack Obama named Zara Rahim — will post “I hope he dies.”
But Trump will do one thing that will alter the course of history. He will create a program called Operation Warp Speed. Pay attention to that. It’s not a silly-sounding nothing burger. It will earmark hundreds of billions of dollars for vaccine development, and knock down the rigid bureaucratic Food and Drug Administration barriers that usually hold up such development.
It will prove to be a game changer, our biggest single weapon of defense. But it will take a while to yield results. And while those lab-coated miracle workers labor tirelessly out of the limelight, the rest of the world will catch fire.
Fighting the virus, and each other
Our March 2020 selves are about to go to war not only with spiky surface proteins that attach to our healthy cells, but with each other.
Yes, many of us will embody all that is great about America — risking our safety for neighbors in need. Our health care workers, our police and firefighters, our bus drivers, even our grocery store clerks will be hailed as heroic.
But many of us will ignore selflessness or grace. Instead, we will act on fear. We will fight each other for the last roll of toilet paper. We will shoot at people who ask us to wear masks. We will push a park ranger into a lake when he asks a crowd to disperse. We will harass Chinese Americans as if they were responsible for importing this plague.
With our jobs either put on hold, shuttered or lost altogether to virus lockdowns, we will turn inward. And that will fuel a season of ugly self-righteousness. Some will denigrate those who have COVID-19 doubts as dangerous fools who should be muted. Others will mock those who follow every guideline as puppets, weak and gullible.
It will soon turn political, and the wearing of a mask, like the blue and gray of the Civil War, will symbolize which side you are on. Protests will get ugly. Militias will energize. Places like Twitter and Facebook will suddenly become arbiters of what it proper and what is dangerous.
Our media will behave not dispassionately, as is its purpose, but the opposite, waving the flag of one side or the other, shaming its critics, jumping on the latest turns and trumpeting them out of proportion. It will not help that 2020 is an election year — in fact, that may be the worst coincidence of the entire pandemic — and political reporting and COVID-19 reporting will become all but indistinguishable.
Governors will catapult in power, as states handle battles differently, and that power will be used to save people but kill jobs, or save jobs but kill people, or both. Hypocrites will abound. The governor of California will keep his state in a terse lockdown, yet dine maskless at a trendy restaurant. The mayor of Austin, Texas, will tell his constituents to “stay at home … this is not the time to relax “ — while vacationing in Mexico!
Elected officials will sometimes morph into authoritarians, and we will hear more calls for lawsuits, resignations and impeachments than any year in memory.
Meanwhile, our stoked anger will take to the streets, and social issues will prompt marching and demonstrating, which will sometimes lead to looting and burning. We might never see such combustion were it not for the fear and isolation that COVID-19 will bring. But it will happen. And the country will be scarred forever.
Human interaction changed … forever?
Beware, also, our March 2020 selves, the human cost of this pandemic. The handshake will be retired. Hugging will be verboten. Going to peck someone’s cheek will bring a backpedal of repulsion.
Human touch will disappear, and we will learn just how crucial it is to our existence. Our loved ones will sometimes die alone in hospitals, a lonely nurse holding a cellphone as weeping families gush their goodbyes.
We will be locked away from all that soothes, interlocked fingers, gentle caresses, eye contact, the whispered “I love you.” This will be the cruelest thievery of all.
But we will counter it. We will rediscover the family dinner table. We will enjoy avoiding a daily commute. We will watch sports less and forget about movie grosses and gossip. We will dress like we’re still in bed, morning, noon and night. We will play with our children more.
But our children will also be casualties. In a move we will come to regret, schools will be shut down in an overabundance of caution — and often in defiance of data which shows kids barely catch or transmit the virus. Critics will shout, “Let the kids go back!” Parents will insist on it. But teachers will bristle, their unions holding firm. Everyone will say “Follow the science!”
It won’t matter. Science, we will discover, is a bendable thing, twisted and pretzeled to support almost any argument. All will depend on whom you believe. Some doctors will be worshipped. Some will be demonized. A study will be held up. Another study will counter it. “Follow the science” will become the most misused phrase in the country.
A nation divided
The price of all this will be no less than the fabric of our society: the connected community. We will divide. We will be locked away. No big family gatherings. No holiday parties. Eventually, even the unthinkable will be decreed: the government telling us how many people we can have for Thanksgiving. By that point, we’ll be so deadened by the previous blows, it won’t even seem radical.
We will be tested and retested. Every American will have story about a swab being stuck up a nose. Meanwhile, milestones will go unmarked. Birthdays and anniversaries uncelebrated. Thread by thread, everything we call normal life will be undone, until some of us will have had enough. Some states will reverse course. Some cities will look the other way. Some sheriffs and police forces will refuse to enforce rules they find unreasonable.
A Michigan barber will become a folk hero. A New York restaurateur will be hailed for his defiance. Gym owners will be revered as patriots.
And all of this will happen as we wait and wait, week after week, month after month, in that unflappable American resilience that believes — that all but insists — that things will get better.
What would you have changed?
And they will get better. Eventually. “Warp speed” will prove to be more than a kitschy label. Nine months after the WHO uses the word “pandemic,” a needle will go into an arm, and like Yorktown, like Gettysburg, like Normandy, that event will shift the war.
We are not out of the woods. Danger still lurks, but in America, anyhow, the vaccines are bringing a new sunrise. Which begs the question: if we knew this back then, if we knew the coronavirus war would be, essentially, one year of acute suffering followed by gradual relief, would we have behaved differently?
Would we have freaked out less about supplies? Would we have been more tolerant of second opinions? Would we have paced ourselves in our despair, and panicked less when some new study predicted the worst?
Would our politicians have been less hypocritical? Would the election have turned out differently? Would the fights we lost our friends and family over never have taken place?
We’ll never know. We can only stand here now, on the one-year anniversary, looking over our shoulders and perhaps wondering why we did the things we did. We made mistakes. We lost lives because of them. We got too tense, too angry, too self-righteous.
But we learned things as well. As the full C.S. Lewis quote goes, “You can’t go back and change the beginning … but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
With the corner turned, we have a chance to be kinder, less fearful, more gracious. It’s been a year. But as death recedes, and the vaccines shield our most vulnerable, a familiar world can be spotted in the fog, drifting back this way. Note to our 2020 and 2021 selves. Appreciate that world when it returns. That’s how we begin to heal.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.