Dearest (hypothetical) future daughter (or son),
I see it clearly. You and your friends are surfing a more advanced version of the internet that I struggle to understand. You start reading about the 2020 Pandemic. It is part of a history project in grade 4. You joke about people stockpiling toilet paper and cheese (the former likely because of the latter…). You begin giggling amongst yourselves as you read about people Lysol-wiping groceries. You laugh, but we didn’t know then that that was overkill. I assume historians will capture the wildfires, royal abdication, U.S. presidential impeachment, and the creatures called murder hornets but, there is more to this story.
Let’s sit. I’d like to tell you about my 2020 story.
Living in the big city and working beside the hospital at a medical center, I heard sirens all the time. Frantic doctors told all of us to stay home because staff (doctors, nurses, technicians, and cleaning/facilities) were getting sick. I remember reading about a Detroit bus driver who complained about a coughing passenger but unfortunately didn’t live to see new safety changes in public transportation. It became real when people closer and closer to me started getting sick.
It was a grave situation: we were approaching the total number of hospital beds and ventilators, which are machines that help you breathe when you can’t on your own. I saw medical tents blocking the streets and sidewalks. People were being treated in makeshift tents in the park and on an emergency hospital ship.
(*As I write this, I shudder thinking about the shortage of burial plots, the freezers…, the push for grieving families to cremate, the zoom funeral I attended… It was too much death all at once. It might be too much for you to know. But then, I think about my friend’s kids having to worry about getting sick or making others sick and their risk of losing loved ones, parents, or teachers. It was also too much for them too.)
The villain of this story is COVID-19 which are initials — letters and numbers that come from the COronaVIrus Disease that had never been seen before 2019. This disease was caused by a virus that waged war on us if we caught it.
I guess you should know, love, that this virus could do a lot of damage to the bodies of people who got it. Not just one part, but all over — the lungs, heart, tummy (& intestines), even brain. Even though most people seemed ok after they got it, many people did not get better quickly and some had damage that might last all their lives. We couldn’t let everyone get the virus. It would hurt too many people.
Our first 3 fiercest battle tactics were washing our hands, wearing masks, and social distancing (just staying coughing distance apart from others).
Washing hands is something you know well, but masks maybe not.
Masks are the fabric that covers your mouth and nose. Because there were shortages of medical masks, we tried to save the best ones for the doctors, nurses, and medical staff who needed them most. People made homemade face coverings. Most of us wore them to keep ourselves and the ones around us safe.
Social distancing was really hard. It must seem weird to you now, but over a year went by where I couldn’t smile at a baby while walking by or hug my friends, not even your great-grandma or -grandpa.
Finally, the fourth thing we could do was take a test to see if we had the virus so we didn’t spread it to others. This test was developed to check whether we had the virus. We did this even if we didn’t have symptoms (like a runny nose or sore throat) because it was later found that much of the spread was from those that weren’t showing symptoms yet. I saw long lines of people waiting roughly 6 feet apart around urgent care facilities to find out if they had the virus. I waited in these lines a few times, the test was quick and a negative result was met with a temporary sigh of relief.
We relied on people who tirelessly gave of themselves — including nurses, technicians, and doctors, and also COVID-19 contact tracers, like my friend who worked two full-time jobs to ensure we knew who had it and where the disease was spreading. Highly specialized scientists in unrelated fields volunteered to run antibody tests (tests to see if you already had the virus). My fellow grad students 3-D printed face shields for medical workers. Science communicators cut through what is called disinformation (really just another word for lying) to help people understand what was going on.
At a time when a sitting U.S president suggested potentially deadly solutions on live TV, it was important to get information from trusted sources. I attended weekly symposiums (or fancy talks) on COVID-19 and listened to podcasts like Science Vs. and Lab in the Time of Coronavirus to stay up-to-date on what we knew as we learned it.
Workers in medical centers, grocery stores, public transportation, education, and sanitation kept our city and worlds moving while seemingly everything else stopped.
For weeks, we cheered every night at 7 PM for the essential workers coming home from their shifts, one turned into a socially-distanced block party with opera. I teared up almost every time. At my school and institutions across the world, I saw clinicians and scientists come together like never before to find ways to test, diagnose, and treat COVID-19.
People stayed home as much as they could, but it didn’t come without a cost. Times were tough. Many suffered from depression and anxiety. We lost beloved celebrities. People lost family members. People lost their jobs. The economy was devastated. Elective medical procedures like surgeries that weren’t an emergency were put on hold. I didn’t go to the dentist for the whole year. I had to brush my teeth really well. Just like you do!
Some people got angry and tried to end the lockdown or stay-at-home orders early. But, after long (*like seriously too long) it became apparent that for the city to beat the virus we needed to work together, not against each other. Ads to this effect started running on TV and kiosks. There was a sense of working together.
We gave up some things to keep our neighbors, families, friends, and selves safe. We were isolated (meaning… apart). It made us realize what we could lose.
I missed vacations, international conferences, weddings, family gatherings, parties, your uncle’s graduation, and so much more. There were countries I was supposed to see for the first time, people I wanted to meet, and loved ones I missed so much.
So many of the visions I had for 2020 were dashed.
We were inventive though. Our family started having internet group chats. (You may notice how Grandma and Auntie never like to get on video chat, I think this dislike started then.) I had online board game nights with my friends. I saw videos of drive-thru graduations and balcony concerts. I virtually went to one of my best friend’s weddings. (You met her, but probably don’t remember). I spent my birthday in lockdown and your daddy did too. Although even Christmas was spent separated from almost everyone I loved, I was grateful to know that they were safe. I learned how deeply you can love and be loved by others.
Since I wasn’t spending as much money, I saved more and found ways to spend it on things I cared about and causes I believed in. But, really I learned I didn’t need stuff as much as I needed people.
I also finally learned how to do self-care — doing things I imagine you too like doing like taking bubble baths, journaling, reading for fun, baking, and styling my hair differently (*Maybe I should try purple hair again. It did look pretty cool…).
We knew that older people were more vulnerable to both the disease and to the isolation imposed to prevent it. I volunteered to call an elderly woman every Friday and ended up with a new friend. She taught me “you can’t fail if you keep trying” and reminded me to “keep finding joy in life, even through hard times.” I checked in with an older neighbor at the time too. In exchange, there was a time when she gave me food almost every day. It was kindness, but I think it was also her way of not feeling so lonely.
Unfortunately, other issues were going on besides the virus. The U.S. and many areas in the world were having a reckoning (meaning… we finally had to deal) with racism.
Racism is a tough one, honey, but it has to do with how we as a people were treating those with dark skin not just one person to another person, but overall. It had to do with which schools and neighborhoods got money, where grocery stores and parks were (*also where chemical plants and liquor stores were), who’s believed by doctors, and who’s stopped by police (*and who survived that encounter).
People marched in the streets to fight racism. They marched for people whose skin looks like ours, because of the injustice… all the things that just weren’t right. There was even a march in the smaller town where your grandparents lived.
It was a time of dual pandemics. Although initially COVID-19 was hailed as a “great equalizer”, the viral pandemic, in practice, played along our same man-made rules: the privileged few are afforded much-needed resources to overcome adversity, while others struggle with less. Yeah… it isn’t fair.
It was also an election year in the U.S. Again, people wrapped around buildings standing about 6 feet apart to serve a referendum (… hmm, give our opinion) on where they wanted the country to go. Your mommy sent her vote in a letter. It was the most stressful letter I have ever sent. (Oh geez, do you know what a letter is?! It’s like an email only on paper.)
We wanted change. We hoped for the future. Yes, this is THAT election. Do you remember your first-grade project on the first woman Vice President? Yup, her Dad was Jamaican just like your grandparents.
For a time that felt so dark, we still saw a lot of light.
We had a lot to be thankful for even amongst the bad. It’s how we moved forward. There were some really great memes. (Oh, uh… I’ll explain what those are later.) But, we had comedians and comics doing shows from their homes. It was a time when creatives expanded their craft. Musicians, artists, writers, actors, storytellers, illustrators, and all gave us some of the best work they had to give.
This was the time when I rediscovered writing.
By the end of the year, we had a lot to be hopeful for. Almost every country in the world was affected and researchers from all over were able to develop 450+ possible therapeutics and 180+ possible vaccines. Yes, I know you can count to 1,000 so you can count up to half of the therapeutic candidates.
Therapeutics are a way of helping people get better, some therapeutics are medicines like you take for allergies.
Vaccines! Yes, we were especially hopeful about the vaccines. You know in old cop shows where the detective holds up a picture and are like “Have you seen this guy?” (*in a deeper funny voice). Vaccines give your body instructions on how to print a picture of the virus and post it everywhere. So if a cell in what is called your immune system sees that same virus it can get rid of it (video).
Vaccines were specially crafted swords in what had previously been a fistfight.
We developed the vaccines in record time — meaning really quickly. Governments, non-profits, schools, and companies (even a company that we usually think about for making scotch tape) funneled in a lot of money and energy to these efforts. But, they couldn’t just make them. They needed hundreds of thousands of people from all over to volunteer to test them for what’s called a clinical trial.
Just one clinical trial had 60,000 volunteers from 10 countries and cost over 1 billion dollars. Yeah, that’s way bigger than a million!
The first vaccines that were approved received cheers and applause. They didn’t just work, they worked unbelievably well. The hard work of scientists paid off.
We knew that we needed as many people as possible to get the vaccine so they would be immune, meaning they couldn’t get COVID-19.
We made sure those who needed protection most got it first. We gave the first doses of the vaccine to older people in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. That’s where your great-grandmother was at the time. I believe the first man who got it was named William Shakespeare in England. Yeah… there were some good puns.
Front-line workers were also prioritized. They were the ones who saw the most number of people every day because of their jobs and cared for us if we got sick. Watching videos and seeing pictures of my doctor friends getting their shots was such a joy. Eventually, I got it the next year, and much later children, like you, had a chance.
Ok ok… I’ll wrap up…
Who’s the hero?
There were so many heroes of this year… so many people cared so much about others that they risked even their own health to help others not get sick: From front-line workers and mental health professionals to those who volunteered for clinical trials, from those volunteering at food banks to those who manned the suicide prevention lifeline. We had scientists studying how to fight the virus and those who fought the disease, survived it, and then donated part of their blood so others could survive.
When I think back on all those who took the vaccines, wore masks, and stayed home even though they didn’t want to…. I remember how many caring, determined, strong, and brave people can be. These are the qualities I hope to teach you, love.
We really gave it the best we could and persevered. I’m so glad we made it out on the other side.
2021 Reader: If I may, we are going to get through this! And, I’ll need your help to make some of these last statements true. ❤