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COVID-19, One Year On, Pt. I: Threnody for a Buried Nation

March 11th, 2021 | 11 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

One year ago tonight, I sat in the bar of the Hotel George in downtown Washington, DC, waiting for my friend to arrive. The TV in the corner was tuned to ESPN, but for once there was no game on. Nor would there be for a long time to come, it appeared. The headlines scrolling along the bottom of the screen had changed from “Rudy Gobert tests positive for coronavirus” to “NBA suspends season indefinitely” within the blink of an eye.

Within the blink of an eye. That cliché summed up so much of what had happened that day, and what would happen in the days to come. That evening, I had been supposed to be running a gathering of twenty or so conservative intellectuals and journalists for what was meant to be the inaugural monthly event. But four days earlier, the DC had reported its first case of Covid-19, in circumstances which suggested a super-spreader event, and the District was on edge. One of my co-organizers was running a fever, and we’d agreed to “postpone” the event. “Postpone” was a word we were hearing a lot that week, a convenient euphemism for “cancel” on the part of some, a manifestation of cheery self-delusion on the part of others. For myself, as I crossed the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac, I knew that this was likely to be the last time I went out for drinks for a good long time to come.

The next morning, I awoke at 6:00 AM to texts from my staff that Loudoun County Public Schools had suspended all classes, completely without warning. This forced us to accelerate—by just one day—our own planned move to online classes at Loudoun Classical School, where I served as Headmaster. Cursing the local school administrators for having gone in the blink of an eye from making me look like an alarmist to making me look behind the curve, I crawled out of bed and began getting the word out to teachers and parents. Later, I drove in to an eerily quiet school building to train a couple of teachers in how to use Zoom, then gathered up all my things, and, with a hollow sensation in the pit of my stomach, turned out the lights.

Sitting at the nearly-empty BBQ joint across the parking lot a few minutes later and trying to cajole myself into an appetite, I found that the hollow sensation would not go away. I felt creeping upon me such a sense of dread and foreboding as I had never known before: as I looked out upon the weeks and months ahead, I foresaw sickness, death, and grief on a scale our society had not known in any of our lifetimes, to be sure—but worse, I apprehended the fear, distrust, and conflict in which the pandemic threatened to smother our society. As with individual bodies, Covid-19 does its worst on bodies politic that suffer from pre-existing conditions, and over the past two weeks, as Americans had begun to indulge in denial and obfuscation about the virus—modeled of course by our Tweeter-in-Chief—I had realized just how serious our own pre-existing conditions were.

I had first felt the dawning dread six weeks earlier, I recalled, on January 24, as I sat by the hospital bed of my 90-year-old grandfather—who was suffering, ironically, from a respiratory condition. There was little to do in the long hours, so I started taking a closer look than usual at the news stories on my phone, where the placename “Wuhan, China” had been showing up with eye-catching frequency. Wuhan, it appeared, was a city of some consequence—11 million people, in fact (how had I barely heard of it before?)—but had just the day before announced a city-wide lockdown. I wasn’t exactly sure what a “lockdown” was, but it sounded dramatic, and soon I was deep down a rabbit hole of links and unnerving tweets. This “coronavirus,” it appeared, of which I’d seen occasional mentions over the past week, was no joke. 3.4% case fatality rate, can spread asymptomatically, incubation period of 2-14 days, R0 of between 2 and 3. As I took in these bits of data, googling to shed light on unfamiliar terms, the feeling of breezy drama-trawling was replaced by a hardening feeling that I can only describe as, “Oh s***.”

I knew this feeling well—as a meteorology geek I’d had it several times before, tracking hurricanes. It began as mild interest, when a new storm was taking shape, growing into a sense of giddy drama as the hurricane strengthened rapidly, with land in its path, only to be replaced with a sober realization that this one wasn’t a drill; it was a monster, making a bullseye for a vulnerable coastline, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Already on January 24, 2020, it seemed apparent that there might well be nothing anyone could do to avert the hurricane of a global pandemic. That seemed melodramatic on the face of things at that point, when China had reported only 1,287 cases and 41 deaths, but it was clear that this virus had evolved an uncanny ability to spread undetected, and had already broken containment. In our age of global interconnection, it was hard to see what would stop it—and even if it proved much less deadly than 3.4%, in an age that had forgotten how to deal with death, it was obvious that it could be deadly enough to be the end of our world as we currently knew it. Still, if it was really that big of a deal, everyone would be talking about it, right? The stock market would be plunging, and governments would be announcing plans to combat it. I decided to suspend judgment but pay close attention.

During the days that followed, I obsessively hit refresh on my browser around 8:00 PM each evening, when China updated its case numbers, and charted the results in a spreadsheet. For the rest of January, the graph marked an almost perfect exponential curve upward, doubling every two days, and my foreboding increased. But then, as February began, cases began rapidly leveling off in China, demonstrating, it seemed, that containment was still possible. No other countries had reported more than a few cases here and there, and I began to wonder if we had dodged a bullet after all. Although the absurdist tragedy of the Diamond Princess cruise ship dominated headlines through the middle of February, it increasingly seemed like an isolated incident. But around February 21, everything changed. South Korea, Iran, and Italy all began to report exploding outbreaks, proof that the pandemic had gone global. I began drafting contingency plans for our school to go online.

Four days later, Nancy Messonnier at the CDC publicly warned that “disruption to everyday life might be severe,” and the stock market finally woke up to reality and began to go into freefall. I hit Send on the email I’d prepared notifying faculty to prepare contingency plans, explaining that although risk to students was low, we had a duty to help protect the vulnerable in our community against by mitigating spread in the event of community transmission.

That evening, I found myself trying to break down the odds for a friend on Facebook. Still unaware of how non-existent the US testing regime was, I suggested a 30% chance that the virus would remain minimal in America, along with a 30% chance the death toll would stay under 250,000, a 20% chance it would be in the 500,000-1 million range, and a 10% chance, that it could top a million. Friends responded to me as though I had three heads. Two weeks later, on March 10, I hit Send on another email, this one confirming to the school community that, as Loudoun County had reported its first positive case, we would shift to online classes starting forty-eight hours later, in keeping with the policy we had drafted. Most parents cheerfully concurred, assuming we’d all be back within a couple weeks. The next night I found myself in that bar near Capitol Hill, listening as the world slowly shut down around us.

The following month was the darkest time of my (admittedly sheltered and privileged) life, as the country settled down into “stay-at-home” hibernation and took to their social media accounts to accuse one another of politicizing the crisis, wrecking the economy, or killing grandma. For one brief shining week, it had looked as if the country might be coming together in response to the crisis, with mayors, governors, school districts and sports leagues announcing decisive measures, and even President Trump sounding startlingly presidential, as he issued somber warnings of what lay ahead. There was a sense of collective awakening after weeks of somnambulance, and a sudden refreshing injection of public spirit, a sense that we were all in this together and were willing to contemplate great collective sacrifices to “flatten the curve.”

Within less than ten days, however, we began to get tired of it. For a nation conditioned to a Twitter-feed attention span, after all, ten days is an eternity. President Trump discovered within himself a sudden longing to see the churches full on Easter Sunday, and a growing chorus of voices began to grumble that we’d be better off taking our chances with the virus than taking our chances with our economy. Meanwhile, first hospitals, then morgues, then refrigerated trucks filled in New York, Boston, Detroit, and New Orleans. As the inexorable logic of exponential growth made mockery of the naysayers, by Passion Weekend, our nation was reporting almost as many deaths per day as China had suffered in three months.

The night of April 11, Holy Saturday, sitting in a dark basement rather than, as in other years, in an Easter Vigil service blazing with light, tears suddenly overtook me, flowing longer and harder than almost any I’d known. I wept for the thousands who had died, yes, but much more so, for the dying of a nation, a people. During the previous weeks, I had been racked by guilt as I watched the numbers continue to climb with a certain grim satisfaction, reflecting inwardly, “Gosh this is tragic, but at least this will show the naysayers, the ‘it’s-just-a-flu’-ers; at least now everyone will have to admit that drastic action was necessary.”

Terrible as the toll was, I still looked forward to the unity that it might forge, the sense that we as a nation had faced a great trial, had made great sacrifices, and had conquered together. Now, on Holy Saturday, as the great wave of death was beginning to crest, I felt sick at my sadistic thoughts—and even sicker as it dawned on me that no such shared conviction was ever forthcoming. What would happen instead, I slowly realized, was that tens of millions of us would get up, dust ourselves off, and say, “Gee, what was that for? I didn’t see any overflowing hospitals. That virus wasn’t so bad after all,” and begin cursing the jerks who’d made us sacrifice some precious freedom to stop it. We would be victims of our own success, like an island full of returning hurricane evacuees grumbling that the predictions of mass loss of life had never materialized.

The pandemic had offered our diseased nation a rare opportunity for healing, for a collective catharsis and a collective triumph. But there can be no catharsis as long as one denies one’s powerlessness and pretends to still be in control. We were in denial—many millions of us, at any rate, and not even the pandemic of a century would be able to shake us out of it. A few weeks earlier I had tweeted, “The one good thing about this pandemic is that it will be the death knell for libertarianism. No one will be able to pretend any more that we can just make choices as individuals without concern for the ripple effects of our actions.” I laugh ruefully now at my naivete in those days of innocence. During the summer second wave and again during the massive, crushing winter wave of death, I watched again with diminishing expectation for the moment of collective realization, the moment when America said, “Oh, right, this is what they were warning us about. This is what those sacrifices were for.” But the moment never came.

Perhaps the saddest story I read all year was of a South Dakota man, Covid-positive and dying on a ventilator in a small-town hospital, shaking his head in denial: “I can’t be dying of Covid. Covid isn’t real.” That, it struck me, might well make a fitting epitaph on the grave of our nation not many years hence.

Still, even in 2020, Holy Saturday was followed by Easter morning. We woke early and trudged out onto a hillside near our house, carrying a bundle of hymnsheets we’d printed, excited to find a couple dozen neighbors who had turned out in response to the flyers we’d left on their doorsteps, ready to join us—standing in knots about fifteen feet apart. Together, in defiance of the death and darkness ringed about us, we united in songs of praise to the Risen Son at the rising of the sun.

Now, one year later, as we strain through another long Lent toward the light of another Easter, this one offering light at last at the end of our pandemic tunnel, we mourn the hundreds of thousands we have buried in the interval, together with the hopes, dreams, and illusions about ourselves, our churches, our leaders, and our people, illusions all long since buried. But, stripped bare of such delusions, of all false faith in ourselves and our abilities to manage either this pandemic or the ugly mass of pathologies in our midst, we can await the Easter light again with calm expectation, knowing that our Lord does his best work with bodies dead and buried.

In Pt. II: What We’ve Learned, I will offer some reflections on what we have learned about the virus, ourselves, and the limits of politics since the pandemic began.

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Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.