Recalling 2020, When the World Shut Down

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Four years ago, the world had largely shut down, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world. Schools closed, non-essential businesses either shuttered completely or went to curbside only service. I shot photos of empty mall parking lots for an online piece for Texas Highways, talked to folks by phone on how it had affected their jobs. Interviewees included longtime local sports editor Jack Stallard, on what it was like to cover sports when no games were being played, someone in the oil and gas business worried about the effects on the economy, a health care professional on the massive stress of dealing with the pandemic, and the longtime owners of Barron’s of Texas. All had to pivot when the pandemic struck.

My Beautiful Mystery Companion and I left campus at LeTourneau University for spring break, not then realizing we would be working remotely for the remainder of that semester and in the fall as well. People we knew, or knew of, got sick and died. We were fortunate to not lose any family members or close friends to COVID, and to not get sick ourselves until months after we had been vaccinated. The symptoms by then, thanks to the vaccine and subsequent boosters, were relatively minor.

We were so fortunate compared to most. We could work from our beautiful home, still living in the city then, able to walk the hilly streets with azaleas blooming, saying hello from a safe distance to our neighbors also walking. We quickly adapted to online grocery ordering, grateful to the frontline workers procuring our items and putting them in the back of the SUV. In truth, we adapted to the hermit lifestyle quite well but watched in horror as the response became political – naysayers who downplayed its severity, refused to wear masks, and only exacerbated the political divisions that continue in this country today.

Donald Trump led the denialism, though later journalist Bob Woodward released a tape of the president admitting he was downplaying what he knew was an extremely dangerous situation. Here are some of Trump’s quotations, gleaned from NPR:

  • “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine,” he said on Jan. 22, 2020.
  • “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear,” Trump said on Feb. 27, 2020.“And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”
  • “When we have a lot of cases, I don’t look at that as a bad thing,” the president said on May 19, 2020. “I look at that in a certain respect as being a good thing, because it means our testing is much better. So, if we were testing a million people instead of 14 million people, we would have far few cases, right?” Days later, the U.S. recorded 100,000 deaths from COVID-19.
  • During a campaign stop in Swanton, Ohio, Trump claimed without evidence that the coronavirus “affects virtually nobody,” downplaying the risk of the extent of the pandemic and the danger that it poses to individuals.

Trump’s irresponsibility during the pandemic cost untold Americans their lives. For that reason alone, he does not deserve another term as president. There are many other reasons, of course – 91 indictments, millions owed in civil judgments, being held liable in civil court for sexual assault, inciting followers to attempt to overthrow the government on Jan. 6, 2021, just to name a few. Don’t get me started.

The country began receiving COVID-19 vaccines in early 2021, which certainly slowed the mortality rate and the seriousness of illnesses when contracting it. Still, by May 2, 2022, the U.S. surpassed one million COVID-19 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 1,184,376 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 since 2020.

COVID-19 is no longer considered a pandemic, but it is still very much among us. In Texas, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, as of early March, 181,539 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 were reported in 2024. The number of fatalities is relatively low at around 70 a week on average, but more than 1,000 people remain hospitalized in the state with COVID-19. Anecdotally, a person I knew only on Facebook died from COVID-19 just a month or so ago.

It all seems so long ago, four years since refrigerator trucks stacked bodies in New York City, families celebrated holidays with an empty chair or two at the table. But four years is a blink of an eye. I pray we will never see another pandemic like that one, but odds are that we will. Sadly, I question if we are any more prepared now than we were back in 2020. Or will the same divisions and finger-pointing once again be the norm?

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