A year ago today, I was on a plane.
I had flown across the country, from New York City, at the beginning of March 2020. Uh-huh. And now I was flying back.
On some level, I knew what was happening, of course. I was aware of the statistics, aware of the protocols, aware that this was a very big deal. It was all anyone was talking about. I knew that I wanted to get back home so I could hunker down. I had my hand sanitizer and my wipes to disinfect the seat on the plane. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to wear a mask.
But I didn’t really know. I didn’t know enough not to have made the journey. I didn’t know in my bones. I remember very clearly telling myself that there was no great rush to get anything in order when I got back to New York. I was landing pretty late in the evening, I had no job to deal with in the morning, and so I would just rest and unwind for a day and then set about trying to figure out supplies and that sort of thing.
You can guess what’s coming. While I was on the plane, the NBA shut down, Tom Hanks announced he got COVID, and Donald Trump got on television and announced that America was closing its doors to Europe. Oh, and the World Health Organization had declared we were in the middle of a pandemic, though that didn’t really register for some reason.
When I got off the plane, I didn’t even go home right away. I went straight to a CVS near my house and got as much toilet paper as I could. I stuffed it into my suitcase with all of my clothes at about midnight, right on the street. I knew. I thought it would be done in a few months, but still.
An entire year of this! How is it a year already? A COVID anniversary, there’s a new thing. I have written precursors to this piece three times since last August, and here we are. The earth has gone around the sun. The waves of death and disease have crested and receded and crested again. Everyone has had the wave wash over them in one way or another.
Everyone has had a COVID birthday, unless they died before theirs came. When I wrote my August piece, 155,000 people had died. It is now almost 530,000.
In one sense, I got very lucky. I didn’t get sick, didn’t have to deal with someone close to me dying from this, didn’t see the bottom drop out of my life. Still, I get a little tired of the reflexive urge to assure the wider world that you are, on some level, undeserving of empathy, even though I totally understand the impulse. Without question, some people had it much, much worse over the past year. The inequalities that COVID deepened and exposed must be destroyed. But nobody made it out unscathed. Living in New York throughout the first months of the pandemic, when the sirens were everywhere and the specter of death felt so tangible and unnervingly close, was hell no matter your circumstances. You had this feeling that, even if death wasn’t affecting you directly, it was happening all around you. I remember walking around the neighborhood on a beautiful day, and feeling somewhat at peace, and then there was the noise of a siren all around, and that was that. Someone dying in that house, someone dying in that ambulance, someone dying in that hospital, someone dying behind the walls. Every day for months, and even now.
People got used to it, naturally. There is no way to go on without getting used to things. Even as the numbers soared across the country in the last few months, there was no reclaiming the feeling of terror and panic that gripped everyone a year ago. This is how things are. That’s life, now with a whole lot more death.
There is far too much that happened over this past year to sum up here, and anyway, I suspect you are not that interested in a box-checking rundown from me. This year was this year. Zoom, prolonged isolation, Trump, online packages, everything shut down, six feet, you know it, I know it. It was awful.
But I’ll linger on June, after George Floyd was murdered and the world erupted. It was the COVID year compressed into a piercing moment—heartbreak and rage, but also a sense of possibility, of something better emerging out of the horror, an explosion of mass power. It was white supremacy and capitalism and inequality being confronted and mounting a sickening show of force in response. It was hope rising and falling and rising again.
That is this year. It was not just about personal misery, billions of individual lives tossed into the storm. It was about ordinary people—poor people, Black and brown people, people in prison, people who needed the subways at night, people who keep the world humming—being left to wither and die by their government. It was about being reminded, over and over again, how cheap human life is to the powers that rule over us. And it was also about people exercising their own power, demanding more than they were being offered, knocking the barriers aside.
It is in those contradictions that the future lies. The pandemic may have vastly expanded the notion of what feels possible for the state to provide its citizens, but it also left the richest people in the world with even more wealth in their hands, and even more domination over our lives. It may have helped trigger a mass uprising against racism and oppression, but it also reminded us how deeply those things are rooted.
Now the vaccines are flowing, and the world is opening up again, and we will have choices to make about what that world will look like. A door has been left ajar, and there is a fight about how far we will be able to pry it open, or if—dare to dream—we can kick it off its hinges entirely.