Opinion Covid isn’t over, but it’s over for me

(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)
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The day my mother called to tell me she had tested positive, I realized that, for me, covid was over.

Practically speaking, of course, it was not. This was late January, when cases were up in Albany County, N.Y. — double the January before — and we were operating under an emergency mask mandate. Augusta County, Va., where my parents live, was weathering a similar surge: twice as many cases as the same time last year.

If I’d heard last January that my mother had covid-19, I would have been terrified. Since the spring of 2020, when the nation first learned the term “comorbidity,” my 74-year-old mother, with her history of asthma, had been among my chief concerns. Nothing scared me more in that first scary year than the specter of her on a ventilator struggling to breathe.

Yet now, when Mom reported that her sore throat and mild fever were caused by covid, I replied, “Well, well. Congratulations.”

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I still love my mom! And I knew the virus was no laughing matter — it had killed so many and was killing still. But the ubiquitous omicron variant had changed something for me. After circling for about a year and a half, the virus had finally breached my social circle. My aunt got it, as did my sister-in-law, two nephews and one son. All careful, all vaccinated, all fine in the end. It was as if a long-feared enemy had at last invaded but had no strength left for the fight.

Or that’s how I imagined it: like Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. “War and Peace” featured in one of my first essays about covid, in which I expressed a longing in May 2020 for the pandemic to be history already, as the events of 1812 were for Tolstoy’s narrator. I wondered, worried, where in the pandemic era we might be: “The middle? The beginning? Oh, God — the prologue?”

It turns out I achieved a kind of prescience through rhetorical flourish: We were indeed in the prologue, or close to it. I didn’t know yet that the sense of intense early camaraderie I felt with my fellow Americans — the all-in-this-together feeling — was no match for the right-wing polarization machine, which turned public health measures into political dividers. I didn’t know yet that, incredibly (thanks to science), we’d get vaccines by the end of the year, but that a year later, incredibly (thanks to politics), a large portion of Americans would still be declining them, opening us to continued attacks. I didn’t know yet that nearly 1 million Americans would die of covid. I didn’t know yet that my family would be vaccinated, boosted and safe.

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I went on to write about living in a perpetual state of uncertainty; missing strangers during Halloween; wishing someone would give us clearer rules; enjoying a break from caring about my body image; wondering how the country might have responded if covid had killed more children; proposing we publish vaccinated vs. unvaccinated death tolls; bemoaning the scarcity of coronavirus tests; and decrying the defiance of mask mandates.

I swear I wasn’t hired to be The Post’s covid commentator. But I was hired to write about politics and culture in the context of life as I was living it, and for a while, covid was the context of everything: my work, my children’s education, my far-flung family, my reading, my thinking, my country.

For many, it still is. People are still living in fear — because their young children can’t get vaccinated or their loved ones won’t, because their immune systems are compromised or they work with the sick and dying. To them, the notion of covid being “over” might seem cruel.

That disjunction isn’t new. Since the beginning, we’ve been experiencing the same global event in vastly different ways. One person’s pandemic meant canceled plans and extra takeout. Another’s meant the intensive care unit and isolated mourning.

Now it seems our pandemic eras will end not just in different ways but also at different times.

I might not be afraid anymore, but I understand that others are and should be. For them, I gladly wear a mask and flash my vaccination card; for them, I worry that Britain is ending its covid restrictions too soon. But the fact that the British government announced the change one day after it was announced that Queen Elizabeth II had tested positive for the coronavirus made some sense to me. A terrible possibility — the beloved queen getting sick — had finally happened and … was not so terrible after all. She is still performing “light” duties. Mom is fine.

In “War and Peace,” the epilogue takes place seven years after the war. When we meet Natasha and Pierre again, the dead are long buried and the living have new preoccupations.

Maybe it will take seven years for all of us to get there post-covid, but I can see it now: the moment a friend of mine told me she longs for, when we find a mask in a coat pocket and think, “Wow, remember that?”

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