Column: Hold on to the hard lessons of the pandemic

Discarded mask on ground among flowers
Perhaps one day soon, masks will seem like a relic. Let’s hope we don’t altogether forget 2020.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

It’s getting harder and harder to remember the height of the pandemic, when some 4,000 Americans were dying every day.

As recently as January, a person died of COVID-19 every eight minutes in Los Angeles County. Embalmers were overwhelmed. California ran out of storage space for the dead, so the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates smog across the Southland, lifted restrictions on cremations.

At the time, all of this — and the overwhelmed hospitals, the lockdown, the unemployment, the closed schools, the grounded planes — seemed unforgettable. It was staggering, surreal; it would stay with us forever.


But in this “vaccine summer,” we seem to be celebrating our relative freedom with amnesia.

Two weeks after my second dose of the Moderna vaccine, I told myself I’d still be vigilant. I told myself I’d go slow, wear my mask, keep my social distance.

But then vaccinated friends came to visit. At first we stayed outside in masks; then we sat in the kitchen in masks. Then without. Now hours pass and I don’t even think about the pandemic, though it is still claiming some 8,500 lives worldwide every day. At some point, I’m not sure when, I stopped keeping close watch on the death toll in the U.S. — it’s more than 606,000 — and began to hug and shake hands again. Fear kept the pandemic in the front of my mind, until the fear abated.

That’s what happens with trauma: We forget. The mind can be kind to us in this way. It would be impossible to move on if we let every sight of haze on the horizon provoke thoughts of crematoria chimneys or trigger memories of ventilator shortages and dying relatives.

But it’s also important to remember — not just the trauma but also the lived experience during the worst of the outbreak. The pandemic made room for long periods of contemplation and stock-taking, to say nothing of brooding, fighting and fretting. Relationships faltered. Careers stalled. Tens of millions of jobs evaporated, and many aren’t coming back. Teenagers, many cooped up at home, suffered extreme psychological duress. Working parents struggled, and some, especially mothers who shouldered most of the burden of child care, hit breaking points. Millions of workers quit their jobs.

When the vaccine first started to roll out, many feared it would be hard to go back to normal. The country seemed stuck in a dysphoria that combined disbelief, anxiety and boredom. All we had were our new abnormal routines.


But after my vaccinated night out, I started to worry it would be too easy.

Like an adult who visits her parents and finds herself acting like a teenager again, we may find it irresistibly tempting to lapse into our old ways. It has even seemed possible, at times, to delete all of 2020 from our minds, skip in memory from summer 2019 to summer 2021 with no summer in between, while treating crumpled masks and gallon jugs of sanitizer as relics of a bygone civilization.

Some refuse to vaccinate, but nearly 50% of Americans have put the pandemic largely behind us with an injection or two. Maybe we should pump the brakes. The reflections of the last 14 months shouldn’t just be shoved in a cupboard with the ramen and dried milk we stockpiled. Nothing throws one’s life choices into relief like a sustained global life-or-death emergency. Relationships, money, work, rest, health, political and moral commitments — these all came up for reevaluation. Keep doing that hard work.

Because our imaginations opened up, too. The stories of people quitting jobs, or joining the front-line workers, or resolving to marry or divorce or have children or move to the Yukon — these changes, many of them radical, suggest that the turbulence shook loose hidden yearnings in many of us.

The vaccines may be making the world safer. But that doesn’t mean our newfound self-knowledge is irrelevant. It is possible to hold on to the knowledge, to keep building on it, without remaining stuck in anxiety.

There’s an old joke about a man on a train that succinctly warns against that stuckness.

“Oy, am I thirsty,” the man moans. “Oy, am I thirsty.” This goes on for hours until finally his seatmate gets him a Coke, and the man gulps it down. A few minutes pass until the man speaks up again: “Oy, was I thirsty,” he moans. “Oy, was I thirsty.”

Oy, were we scared. But we can recall and honor that period of fear without bringing the spiked cortisol with us. A tragic and chastening year awakened us to life’s brevity, its preciousness and its possibilities, and we should not forget that.