Saturday, April 17, 2021
April 17, 2021

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Schmich: Lessons of virus anniversary

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What was your life like at this time last year?

You may not remember the details, but if you think back to the end of February 2020, or the first few days of March, you may remember that you still resided in the vanished land we now call normal. Most Americans did.

One thing I remember is that on Feb. 28 I wrote my first coronavirus column, a piece on how we needed to stop touching our faces if we wanted to avoid this new disease that didn’t yet have a formal name or explanation. “No face touching!” was guidance from the experts, and it seemed worth sharing.

But fewer than half a dozen Americans had died of the virus at that point. If we’d heard about masks, it was only to be told we didn’t need them. Social distancing? Not in the common vocabulary. Lockdown? Here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, that was something that happened only in prisons.

Even then, though, I felt a flutter of apprehension, the kind you feel when you sense a storm coming while the sky remains clear. I’d flown back from New York earlier in the week and, noticing a guy in the airport security line wearing a mask, I’d thought, “Does he know something the rest of us don’t?” I registered the fear and then got on the packed airplane without a second thought.

That Friday night, after I finished my face-touching column, I headed without qualm to the Billy Goat Tavern in downtown Chicago for a farewell party for a couple of colleagues. Dozens of us crowded inside, drinking, laughing, crying a little, shaking hands, hugging. We probably touched our faces.

Superspreader event? Who’d ever heard of that? Fortunately, as far as I know, that night didn’t turn out to be one, but a year later I often think of how easily it could have.

I look back on that weekend as an anniversary of sorts, the anniversary of the last “normal” weekend. Since anniversaries are a nudge for reflection, it’s worth reflecting on what we didn’t know a year ago, what we couldn’t allow ourselves to believe and what our ignorance then might teach us today.

Consider a few Tribune headlines from early 2020:

Jan. 21: O’Hare to begin screening passengers for virus.

Jan. 30: Chicago reports the first coronavirus person-to-person transmission in U.S.

Feb. 9: First American dies of coronavirus.

Feb. 12: WHO settles on an official name for virus: COVID-19.

March 8: WHO resists declaring coronavirus a “pandemic.” Organization says label could cause some to lose hope.

Soon, the American death toll climbed from six to nine to 11. Finally, on March 11, the World Health Organization applied the name it had been avoiding: pandemic.

In the course of a few winter weeks, we went from no known person-to-person transmissions to a declaration of pandemic.

Now here we are a year later. A few days ago, President Joe Biden ordered flags lowered to half-staff on federal buildings to mark the COVID-related deaths of more than 500,000 Americans. Half a million people. Each one of them was a person, and most of them, it’s safe to assume, were loved by other persons who are now in mourning.

Endless words have been spent on how much we’ve all lost in this year of death and disease, how much this time has changed us, individually and collectively. Our imaginations have been stretched to the limits, and it’s still too soon to understand all the ways such vast loss has changed us.

Now here we are a year later, with hope on the horizon. Vaccines have arrived. We hear predictions of a return to gathering, to travel, to a life that resembles what we remember.

But if there’s one lesson to take from the last normal weekend, it’s this: We’re not as smart as we think we are. This virus and its new strains will outfox us if we aren’t careful. Careful means continuing to wear masks and keep our distance and wash our hands, to endure these precautions a while longer. We’re a lot wiser than we were a year ago, but we need to stay aware of how much we don’t know.

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