Today’s young people will still have vivid memories of the 2020 pandemic decades later. They will tell their grandchildren what it was like to see adults wearing face masks doing their daily business. They will perhaps remember closed schools and teachers who reached them through a video conferencing application known then as Zoom.
Some story tellers may wonder about those who refused to protect themselves and as a result suffered death or permanent physical damage – or who exposed loved ones to it. And they may remember the President as a bizarre figure who repeatedly played down a disease that cost hundreds of thousands of Americans their lives.
The UK media have tried to compare this generation to young people who endured the lightning bombings of World War II. “How does the remaining Blitz generation – whose courage in the crisis was long regarded as the gold standard of national resilience – think about all this in comparison? asked the Independent.
The older survivors see similarities, but also major differences between then and now. People in wartime knew who wanted to kill them. “It was the Germans,” said 82-year-old Patricia Thompson. Now any one of us could be “walking around with this disease.
Unlike in the case of COVID, the British who lived in the cities could do little to save themselves except to find shelter. High explosive bombs and incendiary bombs just kept falling from the sky. It made no difference whether they remained two meters apart or wore face masks.
“You really thought this was the end,” wrote writer Graham Greene, “but it wasn’t exactly scary – you stopped believing in the possibility of surviving the night.
One morning after a bomb attack, Thompson said, a friend of hers called her to take a walk to school. The 4-year-old had been killed overnight, so Thompson went on alone. That death could haunt anyone had become a matter of course.
Another big difference, said 88-year-old Jean Corne, was the human contact that was now missing. She remembered how her family would walk under a kitchen table when she heard bombs falling, but in quieter times her father would ask the neighbors for darts, sew and laugh.
The schools remained open during the war. The pubs also remained open. One could still meet everywhere in the country for a beer.
Americans from the Depression era remember in a similar way how a feeling of solidarity brought out the sting in very difficult times. My 95-year-old aunt often talked about the economic trauma, but also about how families and neighbors came together to connect in the midst of shared pain.
Confronting the corona virus requires the opposite: avoiding other people. The loneliness suffered by elderly people in group homes, separated from their loved ones for months and often dying far away from their families, will remain a lasting, raw memory.
Daily existence under constant stress can become so charged that the people trapped in it feel insecure as they return to normality. The American Pamela Churchill, later Pamela Harriman, who remained in London during the Blitzkrieg, expressed a certain uneasiness as the intensity of the war approached its end. “I am afraid of not knowing what to do with life in peacetime,” she wrote.
What will happen here when vaccines flow freely and the coronavirus shrinks for lack of victims? Of course, we will be relieved that we no longer feel hunted by disease. Imagine returning to crowded theaters and sports stadiums.
But there will be less quiet time, less bread baking. A return to frenetic travel and more crowded streets. For many who neither lost their jobs nor became ill, this crisis has brought a strange amount of serenity.
No doubt the 2020 pandemic will stand out as an extraordinary period in American history. It will be up to the boys among us to explain how strange it all was.
Froma Harrop is an award-winning journalist, author and syndicated columnist.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author.