It is difficult to write about COVID today without immediately hearing people’s intense often knee-jerk reactions. There are people pushing masking and almost every other kind of restriction. Others with an equal intensity oppose almost any efforts to brace the country for the onset of Omicron. I was reminded of this (as if I’d had much chance to forget) in various conversations about the public schools in New York City this week. I do not put these differing attitudes – or any of the gradations between them – on an equal footing. I lean more to the former category. And, to be clear, I am only talking here about people who are broadly in a reality-based universe: People who have gotten vaccinated and encourage others to do so. People who recognize the horrible toll COVID has taken on the country. But there is a common driver of intensity across that spectrum. Which is that people have reserves of hurt, fear and anger after two years living through a global pandemic. That gets channeled into these reactions. This doesn’t make sentiments any less true. But they’re all powered by an erratic emotional fuel which is a product of the last two years. If you open yourself to it, you can feel it. It’s palpable and not always pretty. Everybody is a bit broken by it, even if their physical health is more or less unscathed.
Very few of us today have any living memory of World War II. For the vast majority of us it’s history, clear and bookended. It begins for the US in December 1941 and ends a few months shy of four years later. A grinding, long period – but it has a clear beginning and end. And we know when it ends. Once it’s over things not only go back to normal. After a very brief period of economic readjustment and inflation they actually get way better than normal.
But none of this was clear at the time. In 1942 it wasn’t clear how long the war in Europe or the Pacific would last, whether the US would win or what would happen afterwards. So in 1942 you’re not thinking, ‘Well, two or three more years of this and it’s done.’ You actually have no idea. You hope. But hope is not a plan.
This isn’t to say no one had any idea. Military planners had general plans and timelines. But as the military adage puts it, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Plans aren’t facts. Certainly at the level of individuals living their lives, separated families, rationing, nothing’s certain and the future is open ended. And not in a good way.