The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Nero fiddled as Rome burned. Sarah Palin rapped as America did.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, five years before her appearance on "The Masked Singer." (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

John Paul Brammer is the writer of the advice column and book “¡Hola Papi!

It’s said that Nero fiddled as Rome burned. Sarah Palin rapped “Baby Got Back” as America did.

Historians are skeptical of the Nero tale, but I do know it’s true of Sarah Palin. I saw it with my own eyes. At the grocery store a few blocks from my Brooklyn apartment, people were stocking up on toilet paper. Others were withdrawing heaps of cash from ATMs at the bodegas, all the little instincts that kick in during times of panic. “Y’all make some noise for Gov. Sarah Palin!” Nick Cannon, host of the reality competition “The Masked Singer,” announced to wild applause as a not insignificant chunk of my mind shuttered its lights.

For me, the hour the country crumbled came on March 11, 2020, and it all kicked off with the 2008 vice presidential candidate’s reveal as “Bear” in the final minutes of Fox’s 8 p.m. time slot.

Nearly concurrent with Palin’s performance was a special announcement from President Donald Trump, formerly of “The Apprentice,” wherein he took potshots at China and barred all incoming travel from Europe. He assured us that no nation was better prepared for the pandemic than these, our United States; it would take roughly days for this proposition to be thoroughly disproven, but, as we are all aware, disproving things didn’t matter too much by then.

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Fifteen minutes later came more breaking news: Tom Hanks, avatar of America itself, had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The information disseminated in my circles in the form of an image with Hanks and wife Rita Wilson on the red carpet, smiling as though covid-19 were a prestigious award. By 9:40 p.m., the National Basketball Association took its cue and canceled its season’s remaining games.

The simmering anxiety of the previous week was finally bubbling over. Major events, like South by Southwest, had been canceled. Broadway was shut down. Hand sanitizer was selling out. But this, for me, was the hour the battering ram breached the gate: Sarah Palin in a furry-con costume raps Sir Mix-a-Lot. An unhinged president’s muddled address sets off a panic. Tom Hanks has covid! Basketball does, too! Delirious muttering through a fever dream.

One year after the WHO declared a pandemic, we look at the ways it's changed us all

I’m far from the only one to have their “moment” that covid became real, and most, like me, are now reaching their anniversaries. Among my friends, some say it was when their favorite restaurant closed its dining area, or when they canceled a flight for a vacation. Even if we can’t pinpoint a precise hour or day, we naturally seek out a sense of cinema to organize our long ordeal: There’s a time before, and a time after, things we once did, and things we can no longer do.

For decades to come, we’ll all ask each other, in the way of the JFK assassination or 9/11: What were you doing when the truth broke through?

And that’s because it’s much easier than acknowledging the pandemic as a slow trickle of micro-events — a virus making the leap from one species to another, invisible to the naked eye, jumping body to body, no ambitions, no right or wrong, just “spread.” We need faces for things of such gravity. In the past, we’d throw a black cloak over a skeleton, hand it a scythe and call it a day. We had “horsemen of the apocalypse,” concepts like plague and famine and suffering made manifest, more human.

I think we’ve seen this instinct to pareidolia, to find faces in the complex patterns of life, play out many times over our long, harrowing year. We have the covidiots, the Karens who complain about mask mandates, the #GaysOverCovid partying in Puerto Vallarta, all convenient villains embodying the anxieties of the era.

Of course, reality works a little differently. While I was scrolling Twitter watching people react to that wild, wacky hour of news, a cruel arithmetic crept in from the periphery — the exact distance to stand apart from someone, proposed mortality rates, hypothetical lengths of looming shutdowns. With it came language, words that would only gradually become commonplace. Social distance. Asymptomatic carrier. Herd immunity. Flatten the curve. All of it impersonal, clinical and necessary, and none of it tidy.

I couldn’t have known what was just around the corner, and the corner after that. No one could. Even with hindsight, I can’t wrap my head around it now. It’s too large, too unruly a thing for me to “get.” So, a year out, I still look back at Sarah Palin. I see her in her nightmarish Lisa Frank bear costume, and she is my mascot of this strange time we’ve endured, my horse(woman!) of this armageddon, the hellmouth from which everything flowed. She rides alongside Donald Trump, Tom Hanks and 259 unplayed games of basketball, rapping, urging me: “Dial 1-900-MIXALOT and kick them nasty thoughts. Baby got back.”

Read more:

Lucy McBride: I’ve been yearning for an end to the pandemic. Now that it’s here, I’m a little afraid.

Karen Bass, Marc Morial and Cheryl Grills: Vaccine hesitancy is not the problem among people of color. It’s vaccine access.

The Post’s View: Maryland’s vaccine rollout is failing minorities worse than almost any other state’s

Catherine Rampell: I knew I’d miss theater when Broadway shuttered. I didn’t know I’d miss the audiences.

Joseph G. Allen: Don’t let covid-19 keep kids from playing sports

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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