John Paul Brammer is the writer of the advice column and book “¡Hola Papi!”
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.
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.
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.”
Coronavirus: What you need to know
The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.
Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.
Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.
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.
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