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Looking Back: The COVID-19 Pandemic, One Year On

Image courtesy of the FDA

By Justin Lamoureux 

   Thursday, March 11 was a day we all waited for. A grim milestone that we hoped would not be a thing but possessed an inevitable that could never disappoint. The 1st anniversary of when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. I can’t tell you how many people in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations have recalled very specific details about where they were, and what they were doing when some of the biggest events of their lifetime materialized. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the 9/11 terrorist attacks are undoubtedly the most common examples of this. This was my experience at the beginning of this pandemic. I’m normally a positive person (no pun intended) – I generally make a conscious effort to avoid dwelling on topics of an upsetting nature. But these are not normal times, and this is a day that could well be a once-in-a-lifetime event. With all that in mind, I felt it would be fitting to look back on how it all got started. Hence, I am going to take you all back 365 days, 500,000 deaths, and a (likely) infinite number of zoom meetings.

  I began March 9, 2020, like I would any Monday: Groggily cursing my 6:00 a.m. alarm clock. I dragged myself out of bed, and through the morning ritual of shower and breakfast. With my younger sister in tow, I chucked my North Face backpack – which, at that time, could have broken a Guinness world record for its weight – into the back of my Volkswagen Jetta, and drove to my public high school. From the looks of things, it would be a normal week in my small Connecticut town. Just another chronicle in the saga that was my senior year of high school. Little did I know, I was on the cusp of something that could not be any further from typical.

My first premonition of what lay ahead came at dinnertime. Returning from a biweekly meeting of my school’s volunteer club with a Dairy Queen strawberry blizzard in my hand, I was thinking about what a gorgeous day it was. Don’t let the gloomy nature of my morning fool you – By now, I was in remarkably good spirits. In three days, I was planning to jet off to Florida, for a weekend on the gulf coast. My grandparents were renting a condo down there (a long-discussed endeavor), and some extended relatives lived nearby. My parents had generously funded a plane ticket: my 18th birthday present. The day before, I had visited my local shopping mall to purchase a brand new pair of sandals. To say that I was ecstatic would have been an understatement.

Sitting down for dinner, my dad remarked that his cousin – who was also planning to visit Florida that weekend – had just texted him asking what my father (a pediatrician) thought about flying with a 2-month old. I thought it was a strange question but dismissed it as a typical cautionary notion. Then, I looked up at the T.V. My parents were watching CNN, which in our house, is far from unusual. What I saw on the screen, however, would astonish me: footage of an entire city boarded up. Eerily empty streets and canals. Italy had just declared a lockdown in an attempt to control a developing COVID-19 outbreak. No sooner than I had a chance to process what I was viewing did my mom get to the brass tacks: “I don’t know about your trip.” I was again blindsided; was she serious? Why would I cancel a trip to Florida over a virus? She was being ridiculous! I argued. “It is a legitimate concern,” my father replied calmly. “They just announced that people are being urged not to take cruises. In a few days… they could be telling you not to fly, either.” My mother expressed concerns that someone on my flight could have the virus. Or that everything might be shut down while I was staying in Florida. “Are you sure you want to spend two weeks in quarantine with your grandparents?” she asked sarcastically.

I stormed out of the room – as I said, I thought she was being ridiculous. I remained impertinent; I had no intention of canceling my hard-earned vacation. But I’ll admit, in the back of my mind, I was starting to comprehend the gravity of the virus itself. I can’t say that I was shocked by the notion of it affecting our lives in some way – For the better part of three weeks, my parents had been stocking up on food. A few extra jars of peanut butter here, a family-sized box of Oreos there (when I helped myself to the latter, I was told it needed to last through quarantine). For the past two months, I had been hearing tidbits of information about this mysterious Coronavirus. First, it was about entire cities in China – with massive populations far exceeding even the largest American municipalities – going into lockdown. It seemed unusual, but it was in China – literally a world removed from my own. My suspicions were further assuaged by the suspension of commercial flights from China. That should solve the problem, I told myself. Then, it was in Japan. And South Korea. And Iran, oddly enough. Before long, I was hearing about entire cruise ships with thousands of people being quarantined – or, even worse, forced to stay at sea because just one or two travelers came down with the virus. Hmm… I thought. Maybe this could turn into something

Still, I was far from convinced. Part of it, in all honesty, was a certain level of doubt that life in my town could be interrupted by some virus. Located in Central Connecticut – essentially a geographic halfway point between New York City and Boston – we are very much off the beaten path. Nothing significant had ever happened there; at least, not to my knowledge. Many teachers and classmates referred to this phenomenon as the “Berlin Bubble” – Meaning that if you lived in our town, you were (to a certain extent) inherently cut off from the “real world.” While I still had my doubts about the situation, I will say this: later that evening, as I took a seat on my swing set (a calming down ritual that I still repeat often when I am home), there was a cryptic feeling in the air. Admittedly, I have never truly been able to describe the sensation I felt in a way that does it justice. But as I looked up at the sky: it was a clear night, with a full moon and bounty of stars, and the world suddenly felt much less secure. 

On Tuesday, public speculation hit the ground running. There was no limit to the stories floating around: Whispers about spring sports being postponed indefinitely. Somebody’s cousin being abruptly sent home from a study abroad program in Europe. And yes, a theory that schools would be closed imminently. In short, Pandora’s box had opened, and the rumor mill was up and running. I continue to replay one scene in my mind: Sitting in precalculus, I heard a classmate remark that “it would be awesome” if schools were shut down. Our teacher – a woman of great rationale – overheard him, and was not pleased by his assessment. I remember how upset she was. The next ten minutes were spent lecturing the class about what a legitimate shutdown would entail: Athletes missing out on championships after several months of intense practice and competition. Seniors missing out on that final season after four years of dedication. No prom. Or senior week. Maybe not even graduation. “I hope you realize what that would mean for a lot of people,” she told us sternly. 

Meanwhile, my parents and I continued to debate the status of my trip. Every time I mentioned it to my mom, she reminded me of how afraid she was. I rebuked these fears by reminding her how ridiculous she was being (or at least, seemed to be at the time). I’ll admit, our exchanges – though primarily over text – became rather heated. Turning to my father – who has always been the voice of reason in our household – I begged him to talk some sense into her. “I’ll try my best,” he told me. But, I could tell, even he was starting to review his thought process.

I had a quiet night at home. Eagerly awaiting the primary election returns – several states were having contests that day – I continued to monitor the situation on the internet and social media. Nothing related to travel, but several colleges had announced plans to send students home. This included the Catholic University of America: the school I had chosen to attend that fall, and where I am currently having a wonderful experience. My father reasoned that many colleges were doing this to avoid bad publicity. Not to mention, many schools had been – or would be – going on spring break. Undoubtedly, large numbers would be traveling to Mexico, taking cruises, or hitting Florida (as I still hoped to do in a couple of days), adding to concerns of what they might bring back. But that had to mean something, I thought. While colleges and universities function on a different playing field than my small-town public high school does, they did have the same goal: keeping students safe. With that in mind, I suspected, it couldn’t be long before my school followed suit. 

By Wednesday, the aforementioned rumor mill was working overtime. Everywhere I went, classmates were talking about the virus. Some were adamant that it was overblown, and that nothing about our lives would change. “It’s like the flu,” one girl scoffed, clearly exasperated by the subject. Others, meanwhile, were less confident in their assessment. 

In the meantime, my energy was focused entirely on my getaway. At this point, however, my case for going barely had a pulse. By now, my father was plagued by apprehension. During tense text conversations in my study hall, he reminded me of how easy it could be to find myself in a compromising position. The risk, he felt, was just too great. I’ll be honest: I still thought it was far-fetched that my going could be fraught with peril. At least, to the extent my parents described. My father invoked a “crazy town” analogy, positing that nothing was rational anymore. In his view, things were about to get far more complicated; it was better to lie in wait than dive head first into a highly precarious situation. This is when I broke. It wasn’t that I was genuinely concerned about the apparent dangers – I just realized that it was a lost cause. Nevertheless, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. The nightmare scenarios my parents envisioned were unlikely, my dad conceded, but not impossible. I was further validated by the fact that my cousin, and a friend of my father – who had planned to visit his ailing father in Florida that weekend – both canceled their trips. Make no mistake – I was quite disappointed by the outcome. But I did not regret coming to that decision.

  On Wednesday evening, the situation became even more real. I was working what would end up being my last shift at my job in a nearby footwear store. Maybe an hour into my shift, my phone began vibrating incessantly. Concerned about earning the ire of my boss (who was notoriously stringent about “unprofessional conduct” on the sales floor, which included cell phones), I refrained from checking. But it did not take long before I cracked under pressure – when I did take a look, I found that a group chat to which I belonged (along with over a dozen classmates) had exploded with content. Unsurprisingly, it was rife with speculation. A leadership weekend had just been canceled, along with every sporting event and after-school activity in the foreseeable future. One girl remained impertinent, warning people to “stop spreading rumors.” The unfortunate reality, though, was that such ideas weren’t rumors anymore. The school superintendent had just released a bombshell of an email that effectively took the conversation to the next level. In addition to canceling everything I had just mentioned, families were encouraged not to travel during the upcoming spring break (if there even was a spring break). They also discouraged planning vacations before June 30, in case the school year had to be extended considerably. And yes, the Board of Education was developing contingency plans for the eventuality that schools had to be shut down. Simply put: nothing was off the table. 

  Returning home after dark, I was greeted by another shocking development: President Trump was banning all travel from Europe for at least 30 days. I don’t want to say this fortified my belief that said the virus was going to become something – that had already been established. But it did demonstrate the gravity of the situation. It was no longer a matter of if, everyone said. It was a matter of when. All that needed to happen, my dad warned, was for one kid to come back from a trip to some “hotspot,” and everything would be shut down. The walls were closing in – we were teetering ever closer to the edge, and we wouldn’t be able to retain our footing much longer.

  Thursday is when the reality of this situation materialized close to home. Everywhere I went, all people were talking about was the possibility of a lockdown. In-band, a classmate who worked at a supermarket said that his employer promised anyone who tested positive for the virus a two-week vacation. In English, my teacher mentioned that she was tabling our next unit because it would be too hard to do remotely. In speech class, my teacher spent half the period discussing a contingency plan. Checking my inbox, I was greeted by a slew of emails from teachers begging us not to leave anything behind that afternoon. One classmate – who was on the verge of finishing two years of treatment for leukemia – was no longer in school. I was later told that, given the dangers of the virus (especially for someone in her position), she had decided to stop coming in. Some people remained in a state of denial, but the vast majority were biding their time. It was only a matter of time, we had concluded, before the other shoe dropped. 

    We had an early dismissal that day. Not in the mood to prepare myself lunch, I decided to treat my sister to Ruby Tuesday. This was the last time I would eat in a restaurant for six months. Waiting for our meals to arrive, my class group chat continued to buzz. One girl declared that her mother’s school district (her mother teaches kindergarten in a nearby town) had just announced plans to close for at least two weeks starting on Monday. Consulting our local news agency, I would discover that several other towns had come to a similar decision. 

   Later that afternoon, I took a spontaneous trip to our local supermarket. Intending to stock up on the “essentials” – by which I mean my favorite sugary foods and sodas – I was greeted by absolute pandemonium. I had never seen anything like it; shopping carts abandoned in the middle of aisles. Bare shelves could be found in nearly every section – and practically every shelf with items remaining was incredibly disheveled. The entire store looked as if a tornado had just passed through. The crowds were insane – each checkout line stretched halfway around the store. A “survival of the fittest” mentality had ensued, as people barreled through the store searching desperately for their chosen items.

   We ordered Chinese food that evening. Sitting in front of the T.V., we desperately awaited some kind of announcement. At work, my parents had both heard rumors of a national lockdown. Even though nothing had been declared yet, as my scheduled flight time approached, I was glad not to be leaving for Florida. My parents agreed, reiterating that I had “made the right call” on several occasions. Parent-teacher conferences were that evening, and by speaking to a social studies teacher at the high school, my mom got the scoop: The district was concerned that if they closed everything too early, “we would end up being out for four weeks.” Later, a police officer (who happened to be a former neighbor) stopped by. The last person to enter our house before quarantine, he was coming to investigate a suspicious-looking gentleman who had turned up on our front doorstep that afternoon (luckily, this individual – whoever he was – did not seem to realize that I had forgotten to close the garage door). The officer shared my parents’ suspicions regarding the timeframe of when schools would close. “I’d be shocked if they had school on Monday,” he said.

   We got the call less than an hour after the police officer had left. He was right on the mark: Starting Monday, schools would be closed for a minimum of two weeks. While I certainly did not relish knowing that a virus had compelled our town to shut everything down, by now I was relieved the wait was over. My mom questioned whether we should go to school the following day. “Is it safe?” She asked. In the meantime, we were also starting to receive tidbits of information about what was happening in Italy: people were only allowed to leave their houses to visit the grocery store and pharmacy. Police were fining people for violating these stringent quarantine rules. Recalling the footage of empty streets I had seen the other night, I tried to imagine what it would be like if we had to follow such strict guidelines. It was starting to look quite realistic, but at the same time, remained unfathomable. At this point, though, the shoe had dropped. There was no going back – the train had reached the station, and it was time to climb aboard.

   I would like to note that my last day of “real” school was also the strangest. It was raining outside, and within the halls of my school, the mood was equally gloomy. The air was tense with anticipation and tainted with uncertainty. It felt as though everyone was getting ready to leave for an unknown destination. Teachers made desperate attempts to overcome the subdued nature of my peers, reassuring us and encouraging us to view this strange occurrence in the best possible light. “This is really about your safety,” my English teacher told us. Other teachers reminded us how much they loved us, or how important we were to them. In every class, the main idea was that “we’ll be back together soon,” though I viewed that prospect with suspicion. I did not find it helpful that numerous classmates seemed bent on treating it like a two-week, free-for-all vacation. All day, I heard people making plans to visit the movies, the mall, each other’s houses. “I’m going to do everything but stay home!” One girl declared with confidence that I found rather off-putting. I wanted to shake these people. You do realize they’re closing the schools because they WANT  us to stay home, right? I thought. What you’re planning to do is defeat the purpose of something that is being done keeping us healthy! I guess I shouldn’t have found their overconfidence surprising. At the time, even though the entire world was unraveling right before our eyes, I still didn’t think it would become such a dire situation. At least, not in our town.

 

   I remember that last drive home from school. Believe it or not, I wasn’t thinking about when – or if – I would make it again. I had bigger worries on my brain. The world suddenly looked entirely different, and it wasn’t because the sun had come out. Everything felt cryptic and fraught with peril. In my relatively insular small town, I now felt extremely vulnerable. In a sense, I felt like I was on the run – from who, or what, I did not know. I felt like I was leaving everything behind, for something completely unheard of. I still didn’t know what a pandemic was. I had never heard of Zoom or widespread quarantines. I thought quarantine was a practice reserved for animals coming from overseas! The biggest absurdity, though, lay in the fundamental predicament – In other words, this virus likely didn’t even exist three months before. Less than two months prior, it was wreaking havoc in China. Now, it was poised to derail life as we knew it in (what might as well be) the epitome of small-town America. 

   As I closed the garage door behind me, I felt like I was completely shutting the world out. I didn’t feel like I was entering my house – I felt like I was going underground.

I don’t think I will ever forget just how strange those days felt. A lot has happened over the last year – some good, some bad – but it still feels like a strange dream. In many respects, I have been incredibly fortunate. Neither of my parents lost their job when everything shut down, and we have experienced no economic hardship. Nobody I love contracted the virus or died from it. I was still able to walk across the stage at graduation (though I did enjoy the car parade much more). Unlike many of my equally deserving high school classmates, I had the opportunity to go away to college. Still, I will always carry the lessons of this pandemic with me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this; In fact, I think it could be a part of me forever. The same could probably be said for much of my generation.  

   I encourage everyone to look back on the last year; how far they’ve come, how well they’ve coped with such tribulations. I feel it’s important to remember how it all got started; when it comes to retracing our steps, that is the best jumping-off point. 

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