ONE YEAR OF COVID-19
Looking back and ahead
When did the pandemic start? Throughout last January, there had been increasing reports of a new Sars-like illness in Wuhan that I'd been warily watching. But on Jan. 22, shocking videos and pictures emerged from the city. Police were blocking the roads out of the city. All of them. China was cutting off 11 million people from the outside world.
The scale of that action was so wildly out of proportion to what we'd been led to believe was the situation there that it was impossible to deny that something very dangerous was unfolding.
That's when I knew. But others knew sooner.
Today, Dec. 30, 2020, is the one-year anniversary of the first major official communication by Chinese officials.
Doctors had begun receiving patients sick with something new and aggressive at the start of the month, and one year ago today was the day that the local public health officials in Wuhan sent a memo to everyone in their unit, warning them to be alert and report additional cases of an aggressive pneumonia with an unknown cause. Symptoms were described. Links among patients to the Wuhan seafood market are noted.
It's a bland document, at least in translation. But why wouldn't it be? There were fewer than 10 serious cases when that memo went out. As I write this, the worldwide death toll is just a hair under 1.8 million; 15,000 of those are Canadian and a shocking 350,000 or so are American. It's hard to be more specific on that last figure. The number changes too fast. Most hard-hit countries are going up by hundreds a day. Americans are dying by the thousands.
The documents and reports that would follow Wuhan's memo to its medical units, of course, would be a bit more exciting. The situation in Wuhan deteriorated quickly, despite China's efforts to downplay the crisis ... efforts that ended abruptly the day they blocked the roads.
There were photos of bodies in the streets, of overwhelmed hospitals and of doors to apartment buildings being welded shut to keep the residents inside. There was the news of the disease rippling out across China and then the world. Italy and Iran were the next to reel. And then it was here. Everywhere.
A future historian — probably reams of them, come to think of it — will make a career out of reading the documents we produced in 2020.
The medical reports and memos, the news coverage and even the social media posts. A whole history will be laid out in parallel. There will be hospital and government communications beside mainstream media reports and commentaries all next to Facebook posts and tweets. All will be timestamped and searchable.
You'll be able to reconstruct the pandemic, and even re-experience it, in a way, advancing in fast-forward through 2020, watching as initial confused reports morphed into credible warnings that then became the near-daily updates on case counts and death tolls that have taken over a huge portion of our daily data diet.
You'll be able to repeat the merciful lull of the summer of 2020, and then the slide back into this bleak fall and winter. You'll see the mistakes made all over again. You'll see the same rationalizations and assurances that the second wave wouldn' t come or would be a minor bump, and this time you'll know those predictions will come to nothing. You'll see the race to vaccines and the joy of those first needles going into arms all over the world.
For a future historian, it'll be fascinating. Decades from now, someone will tell someone else at a bar, “Oh, me? I'm a historian. An expert in 2020.” And the other person will know what they mean. The general public, born after this is all over, may not care about the nitty gritty details, but will watch documentaries and read books about the last 12 months, if only to cover off a few mandatory history credits in undergrad. Our present hell is the mandatory reading of the future.
Those of us who lived it, though, will probably be more cautious consumers of the popular histories and serious scholarship to come. It's still the present for us, after all. We have to get through the second wave, and possibly even future waves. We have to remain alert to further mutations. We'll have to review all of this once the dust has settled. Then we'll have to compile the second drafts of history, the big-picture stuff the future historians will work off of and build upon.
For a great many of us, we won't look back. I had a sense of why when I read that Wuhan document from a year ago. Like I said, it was bland. Even banal. But it still sent a chill down my spine. “Here it comes,” is all I could think.
I'll read the histories one day. But in the early part of 2021, as those first anniversaries roll by, I won't blame anyone who decides to pop in an old movie or bury their nose in a good novel.
We've lived it all once already. Once was enough, for now.