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Coronavirus Is Killing Our Memory

If we can’t even remember the previous month of the pandemic, how will it sit in history?

On Monday, MSNBC host Chris Hayes had thoughts on school reopenings to share with his 2.1 million Twitter followers. Overall, he saw it as strange that colleges are attempting to revive campus life while primary students remain stuck in remote learning programs. While arguing these approaches ought to be switched, he tossed out a curious parenthetical: That New York City should work toward in-school teaching because of its low coronavirus transmission rate.

There are several reasons why this data point may not justify a return to schools. Children have barely been tested compared to adults, and neighborhoods with fewer infections may be at higher risk in a second wave, per the New York Times just a week ago. But then there is the simple fact of New York being the epicenter of the pandemic through March and April, which Hayes doesn’t acknowledge. The present is our only guide to the future, whereas we actually need to treat COVID-19 as a massive, ongoing event that stretches across an indefinite period of time.

Human beings aren’t good at this, as the author Elisa Gabbert writes in “Big and Slow,” an essay about our response to large-scale disaster. “An idea as large and amorphous as global warming blurs the distinction between object and process: To look at the moving object we have to pause it, which renders it inert, allowing us to contemplate it passively,” she explains. 

Coronavirus has been treated similarly, with horrendous results. Many Americans (and their elected leaders) seem to have already forgotten that lifting lockdown orders too early caused a spike in U.S. cases, and that those decisions were the outcome of forgetting the grim projections that led to lockdowns in the first place. Our experience with this catastrophe has been that of episodic amnesia — we react to a crisis, then lose our memory of why that reaction was necessary, tell ourselves the danger has passed and then start the cycle anew.

In so many ways, we keep waking up to recite the same bizarre but comforting lie: It’s over.

Trump and the GOP, of course, have been saying it’s over since before it really began; the party’s national convention has so far been a grandiose exercise in avoiding the topic while still taking credit for a successful containment strategy that never materialized. But even our media apparatus isn’t equipped to keep up with this revisionist churn — and of the thousands on Twitter who mocked Kimberley Guilfoyle for yelling her way through a speech on Monday night, few appeared to recall that she tested positive in early July, not long after attending a ritzy Hamptons party where unmasked attendees behaved “as if COVID had never happened.” 

Speaking of the Hamptons, remember when the Chainsmokers held a concert there without social distancing last month, prompting an investigation from the state’s health commissioner?

I’m sure you do: It was a viral outrage for all of 48 hours. Since then, however, we’ve had essentially zero news of anyone being held liable, let alone whether new cases have been connected to the gathering. It sure isn’t helping our collective grasp of history that the U.S. has failed at contact tracing, a crucial tool for drawing the line from then to now. The informative follow-up on potential superspreader incidents is rare enough that I was shocked to see coverage of how the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota contributed to infection numbers in far-flung locales two weeks afterward. Sustained attention feels like a novelty.

Maybe some of this is the culture we’ve created; god knows there are people in this country who get upset if you point out that it was founded on slavery and genocide, or suggest that we haven’t yet achieved equality between sexes, races or other identities. Our exceptionalism demands the belief that we solve the problems as quickly as they’re named, speeding forward, never breaking stride nor looking back. This breezy confidence has made for superficial solutions that allow systemic pain and injustice to continue festering. The nearly 180,000 deaths from coronavirus in the U.S. add up to a stupefying tragedy, but they’re also an embarrassment for the world’s most powerful nation — they must be memory-holed, along with each story of our incompetence, hubris and unscientific approach in dealing with that bleak reality.

It takes effort to unravel the phony narrative being woven before our eyes: The version in which grit and resilience carried us through, the worst was avoided and we all came together.        

We cling to that rising casualty count as the lone reliable statement of national collapse — the proof we did everything wrong — but unless you’ve lost someone to the virus, that too may be an abstract awareness. In the months and years ahead, it will be imperative to recall the lives lost as more than a grim statistic. If we don’t solidify what’s happening in a given moment, and cannot string the moments in sequence, we will wake up in an age that has no understanding of this one, and therefore takes no wisdom from it.

We know the fate of those who forget history. What often goes unsaid is that the remembrance has to begin before the thing is finished. 

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