Looking back at the first year of an inescapable global pandemic

It’s been a year like none other in the lives of baby boomers and everyone else on our planet. Lives, plans and dreams, jobs and tasks and routines, have been turned upside-down and put on hold. The world has become isolated because of Covid-19. BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs takes a personal look back at this time in history.

Others will cite slightly different days but for me, the pandemic lockdown last year began on today’s date, March 13th. It’s not hard to remember because it wasn’t just the 13th, it was Friday the 13th. Seems fitting. And that’s why I write about it now. You will remember. You will relate. Who wouldn’t?

Who would have thought that on this day, a full year later, we’d still be dealing with it? Still be suffering from it? Still be a ways from containing it? Still even be talking about it?

Greg Dobbs

Who’d have thought that for a while we’d have no more sports? No more handshakes? No more religious congregations for those who wanted it? No more travel if we could help it?

Who’d have taught that for a long time we’d have no more kids in school? Which for many meant no more hot lunch. And for many parents, no way to go to work while caring for kids now homebound.

And… almost more inexplicable than everything else… no more toilet paper. A friend told me early on that while he used to spin his roll of TP like he was the host on Wheel of Fortune, now he was spinning it like he was cracking a safe.

Who’d have thought it?

It seems like only yesterday when I went with a few other guys to the home of another friend— a prominent oncologist who understands pathogens better than most— and he greeted us with elbow bumps. We all shared a laugh. Now, not so much. As a brother-in-law said to me at the time, “When you hug somebody, you’re also hugging everybody they’ve hugged.”

It all happened so fast. There are countless examples of that, but here is mine: I work in a unit at the Vail ski resort that responds to radio calls about injured skiers or patrols the slopes to find them. On Friday the 13th, I got an employee email that explained cautionary new limits for how we use our locker room and how carefully we must interact at our early morning briefings. Within hours, more emails laid out new rules for restaurants on the mountain (they would serve only individually pre-packaged food), and for loading chairlifts (everyone had the option to ride up the mountain by themselves). Just hours after that, the final email: Vail Resorts, the largest ski company in the world, was closing every one of its mountains in North America, effective immediately.

Skiing at Vail

It swept the nation like that. Sometimes all in a single day.

If you’re not a skier, you might have thought, so what?! But the impact was on far more than skiers. Every store, every restaurant, every company and service even remotely related was all but out of business. And almost every employee, out of a job.

The whole world, as we knew it, was shutting down, putting tens of millions of people out of work and tens of millions of children out of school.

But not everyone was out of work. Not everyone could be. The pandemic redefined what we think of as essential workers. Front-line workers. It became not just police and firefighters and military. It became every citizen who worked in a hospital or a nursing home as they became petri dishes for the virus. And not just those dispensing care, but those who cleaned up after it. In many cases, for minimum wage. It became grocery workers and delivery drivers and classroom teachers and everyone helping sustain the infrastructure on which this society stands, from energy to transport to communications to finance. You could argue that these people kept this locked-down nation from sinking into civil unrest.

It reminded me at the time of a book I wrote years ago called Life in the Wrong Lane. It is mainly about the life of a foreign correspondent— my life. I came up with the title when I thought about disasters I’ve covered like hurricanes, when everyone in the disaster zone who’s smart is in the right lane, trying to get as far away as they can, but those who have to be there, like first responders and journalists, are in the wrong lane, heading toward the trouble.

With the pandemic, frontline workers are the ones who’ve lived life in the wrong lane. They are people we never fully appreciated before. Maybe now, that changes. They’ve risked their lives by the simple act of going to work.

They haven’t had the luxury the rest of us have had of avoiding what made us anxious. Anxious about how close someone comes when passing on a sidewalk. Anxious about what we touch.

Can you believe that only a year ago, when we’d see pictures of people wearing masks in Asia, we’d think they looked strange, as in, “It’ll never happen here!” Or that many of us decided this past year to let the plaque build up rather than go to the dentist? Or even to let heart pain play out rather than go to the hospital? Can you believe we used to consider airplanes safer than cars, until— despite airlines’ assurances about excellent ventilation and air circulation (of which I personally am skeptical)— we began to think of them instead as long tubular prisons with no escape from a fellow passenger’s deadly germs?

Can you believe we’ve had funerals without mourners. And semi trucks, doubling as morgues. And family dying with no one they love to hold their hands.

If you wrote a story about how our world has changed, you could submit it to that chilling old TV series The Twilight Zone and they wouldn’t have to change a word.

It’s curious that in one way, this pandemic became a great equalizer. Everyone is affected: young and old, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, black and white, conservative and liberal, female and male. Yet in another way, it made some gaps wider. A lot of us were stuck at home, but some have had more money than others to cope, and some homes have been a whole lot easier than others to shelter in place.

We’ve been at war with an enemy no one has seen before, putting our lives in the hands of experts who’ve been on the same learning curve we’ve been on. Although solid scientific data has built up over time, some of what they’ve told us has been guesswork. Educated guesswork to be sure, but still, guesswork, as they stayed one step ahead of the rest of us. I cut them some slack, because I liken them to senior officials at NASA who used to tell me when I covered the space program, “The only thing we don’t know is how much we don’t know.”

But, there is some silver lining. There always is.

We learned of a thing called “Zoom.”

In a simple sense, at the beginning anyway, some who lived in lockdowns lived a month of Sundays. It was just what many had always dreamed of living. Finding new things to do, or finding more time for old things.

Many rejoiced at the slower pace of life in this new normal, like lower levels of pollution, and for families, togetherness that the old normal rarely allowed. Thanks to Zoom and its competitors, many of us now connect with family and friends more than we did before.

Rohit Bhargava

In the bigger picture, as futurist Rohit Bhargava painted it for the Vail Symposium: “One of the biggest effects of the disruption we are facing today is the acceleration of ideas. Distance learning, ghost restaurants, e-sports, telemedicine, streaming entertainment, videoconferencing, and more than a dozen other futuristic ideas are now becoming daily realities and going mainstream.”

And oh yes, the dogs. A meme went around in the early days that said, “It’s the dogs that started this.” Suddenly people weren’t shutting the door and leaving them alone from dawn to dusk. They were getting more walks than ever. They’ve been having the time of their lives.

Thankfully, many who didn’t go down the pandemic’s dark path came through with humor.

The first joke that made me laugh was about someone’s offer to swap their four-bedroom home for a 12-pack of toilet paper. Then another, which described the newest sales pitch for real estate agents: “Can’t you just see yourself quarantining in this beautiful home?”

My favorite ended up being the guy who said, “I just saw my neighbor, homebound for so long now, talking to his cat. He thought the cat actually understood what he was saying. I went back home and told my dog about it. We had a good laugh.”

However, when my daughter sent me photos of how she was using soap suds, then warm water to disinfect the bananas she was lucky to buy from a grocery delivery service, I knew it was no joke. I myself had always washed my apples but now I was washing my applesauce jar too. That was no joke either.

When my local paper The Denver Post, which serves a city that treats its major league teams as religious icons, ran a special box on the front page saying that because of all the cancellations, most days of the week until further notice there would be no sports section, I knew this was no joke.

When I saw the world as we know it virtually shut down, putting tens of millions of people out of work and tens of millions of children out of school, it was no joke.

It was a tragedy.

A tragedy that has been all but impossible to catalogue, because between so many selfish short-sighted hard-headed deniers and so many variants of the virus, the pandemic has been impossible so far to stabilize. I wrote less than a month into the lockdown about the death toll then approaching double the combined tolls from the tragedy of 9/11 and the two wars it triggered in Afghanistan and Iraq. How quaint. In the U.S. alone, we’re now at well over a half million and counting.

Not long afterwards I wrote that with the death toll then at about 50,000, it was as if a hundred fully packed all-economy 747s went down, all in the space of a few weeks. How quaint, again. Now it would be nearly 60,000 jumbo jets.

And the tragedy is not just the deaths, not just the permanent deterioration of health for some who’ve survived, and not just the rise in bankruptcies and evictions and homelessness. As people have been holed up, abuse has also gone up. And depression. Some call it the pandemic wall. Some call it pandemic burnout.

The name doesn’t matter.

One also can’t catalogue all the touching quotes of ordinary Americans about the pandemic’s impact on their lives, but I offer these few, to which most of us probably can relate.

One is from a young mother of four in Massachusetts who spoke for us all when she wrote, only two months into the lockdown, “Right now feels like forever. Right now feels so long and without any end in sight.” Author John Pavlovitz enhanced it a few months later: “Yesterday was a long year.”

Or the woman a friend of mine told me about whose husband had COPD— Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease— and whose five-year-old granddaughter had a compromised immune system. My friend says that when he asked the woman how he might be able to help, she simply said, “Catch my tears.”

So many tears. Yes, some of us have figured out how to be inspired by the changes in our lives this past year. Some have just been bored. Sadly, some have been depressed.

But if we aren’t dead or broke or otherwise left bereft from this pandemic, we’re the lucky ones.

A year into it, not everyone is so lucky.

1 Comment

  1. It has been a hard and difficult year with much sadness and anger, but as spring can be seen and felt just over the next hill there is hope again. I see people who have struggled keep putting one foot in front of the other. And there is a feeling of we are going to make it. As you said~”But if we aren’t dead or broke or otherwise left bereft from this pandemic, we’re the lucky ones.” Thank you Greg, I enjoyed and needed this piece you wrote!

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