A Reflection on the Beginning of the Pandemic

Sometime in all of our lives, the world we once knew said goodbye to us. For some, it was a somber furtive goodbye; the kind where a now-long gone friend you once knew waved goodbye, promising to meet the same time next week, but now exists only as a rosy dream of years past. Was it ever real? For others, it was a reluctant goodbye that went down in kicking and screaming, wrought by figments of conspiracy and delusions of oppression; a goodbye that has refused to be acknowledged. Yet for many like myself, it was a goodbye on borrowed time, one whose curtains were quickly closing and the stage, ever-shrinking with an audience left unamused.

Being an American anywhere in the world during that fateful week in March was akin to having a timebomb attached to one’s chest, trying to throw it off before it blew. In Donald Trump’s rash decision to ban all travel from Europe, Americans abroad were left with vague aspects of his plan and had only a week to figure them out. Would I be shut out from returning to our country? What would happen if I missed the window of opportunity to leave? What if I don’t have the money? These were the anxieties held in the minds of many Americans. Europe’s airports turned into mini versions of the Fall of Saigon with people lining up or clamoring to get on the next flight out of the old continent. At the time, I was in Germany visiting my sister who went to school in the country. The virus at that point in time was still referred to as just that– a virus; a concerning but small epidemic that would probably only have small spillovers from its origin in Wuhan, China. And Wuhan was very far away. There is no doubt a stubbornness and ignorance that ebbs the modern American experience with diseases to the point of outright ignorance. There were similar hysterias in the West with Ebola, the Swine Flu, and the Zika Virus whose reach never truly panned out in the same way COVID-19 did. Americans were not right to ignore the prospects of a pandemic, but at first, could the overall blasé attitude of some truly be considered to be outside the realm of an established reaction?

Germans, although they read up as much as anyone else on the pandemic were just as nonchalant as the virus developed into a pandemic. In Berlin’s streets, there were few among the population who could be said to be observant of the new order. Berlin was as gloomy as it had always been. Masks were few and far in between, much as in the US at first and one could feel a fleeting sense of curiosity or suspicion when spotting the lone people walking on the street with masks. How paradoxical it is to remember the attention drawn by those first few who wore masks compared to little more than a few months –or weeks– later.

My layover in Portugal was not much different save for the sunny weather. Weather has a great effect on the mood of people; a widely-agreed upon phenomenon. Walking through the sunlit boulevards of gridded Lisbon with traffic, shops, and businesses all at their full capacities, one could confidently say that COVID was far beyond the horizon, a cloudy matter for other people in another place; that we were safe here and far from the rising specter of infections and deaths. Yet, even through the lenses of hope and doubt, anyone could tell a storm was coming; one that would last for a long time. The curtains were closing fast. On my last day, I sat under the shade of a lofty umbrella at a restaurant near Lisbon’s sunlit marina. I watched people pass by as I waited for a dish of grilled salmon and potatoes, a standard of Portuguese cuisine. I remember their laughs, their smiles, their joy, and most notably, their arms around each other. It was a day like any other. Many figured it wouldn’t last long. Some thought until summer at least.

I came back to a changed nation than the one I had left behind. I had heard of horror stories at American airports. Out of these, Chicago’s O’Hare stood out the most. One could see videos everywhere of humans clamped together in the tight sterile halls of its airport, never mind fact that this was the beginning of strict COVID awareness across the world. Their movement was retarded by the slow inefficient customs officials, whom, even pre-pandemic, almost never operated at full capacity even when there is a blaring need to do so.

Thankfully, that was not my experience. Newark’s airport was a quieter option and I took a deserted train back to Washington DC, where went to university. By the time I arrived back, universities in America’s capital were rushing to dump out their students back to where they came from. Many were just as unsure of what was to come as the rest of us and floundered in their responses.

For a while, in a pleasantly strange turn of events, the world began to physically heal. As human activity receded, news reports came in of mother nature taking back what was hers. Deer walked through deserted towns in the English countryside in what had once been their primeval forests. Sheep and goats strolled through the streets as bears lumbered through Alaskan cities. Perhaps most beautifully, the canals of Venice began to clear up and dolphins were its Grand Canal. Amazingly, COVID-19 paused CO2 emissions the world saw a 7% decline in them.

The human factor is too great ignore, however. COVID-19 was now at crisis proportions for the States and it was thrown right in front of our faces. Flights were cancelled, shops were closed, cars disappeared from the streets, airport passengers weened, businesses went bankrupt, the stock market took a nosedive, friendships were broken, relationships became strained, and most of all, people died. Millions of people now. Through all of this, we kept hoping that it would all shortly come to an end; that students could finish their Fall semesters in-person, that we could evade the mentally exhausting Zoom meetings, that we could have our lives back, that our loved ones could be saved. That was unfortunately never a feasible reality. The pandemic may end quietly someday, but the world has changed. Forever. It has changed the way we do business, how we socialise, our politics, what tools we use to socialise, norms in the workplace, and how we see the world. The world before COVID-19 is gone. Coupled with recent events in Ukraine, 2020–2022 will be remembered as the years when the 21st century truly began its momentum.

I will provide a final quote for some mental mastication. On the eve of Britain’s entry into World War I, a war in which, like COVID-19, was popularly expected to end soon, the British foreign secretary remarked to his friend, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

We shall neversee the lamps of the 2010s relit again. Looking back at the very beginning, were we naïve or only reluctant to say goodbye?

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