Reading that sentence is the first time I’ve seen the Covid-19 pandemic written about in the true past tense — historically. Quite literally, embedded into the narrative of a history book, with a neat start and end date, cemented, done and dusted.
My first response was a thrill. There was a time in mid-2020, as the scale of the coronavirus effects became truly apparent, that I really thought it might not end. I read about Justinian’s Plague and the Black Death reoccurring every few summers for 50 years and wondered whether recurrent bouts of Covid-19 would come to dominate the rest of my life. It’s hard to imagine that we went about our lives with the possibility of no effective vaccines at all hanging over our collective heads. But we did, and we got lucky, and though people continue to die of Covid-19 every day, the pandemic is over. History.
It’s weird to write about. I can only speak from my perspective, but it definitely feels as though our society has sort of forgotten the pandemic ever happened. Not intentionally forgotten, not buried like trauma, but just … moved on. Though it was scary at times, and though we lost loved ones along the way, its primary effect on our lives was just restrictions. So (a) there wasn’t many memorable events occurring, but also (b), the horrible things which happened were not necessarily all that different to the horrible things which happen occasionally in life anyway, such as the passing of elderly relatives. As restrictions were lifted and our time became populated again, friends and going into work and funerals and dates and gigs and doctor’s appointments have overwritten those strange months of lockdown and years of subtle respiratory dread.
I said at the time, to the poor few people who were within my bubble, that the pandemic was the first Historical Event that I’d really lived through. Born in 1995, I grew up after the End of History, which, if a bullshit concept, at least applied to middle-class me growing up in Surrey. There were historical events — 9/11, the Arab Spring — but they were so distant that they were no more real to me than the Second World War or the Fall of Constantinople. But the pandemic was something that I lived through, that I experienced firsthand, in all its fear and paranoia and boredom. I witnessed how narratives develop and spread and get discarded and replaced. Remember when people would nervously wait for the daily statistics to be released? Remember when people were saying that if you could hold your breath for 10 seconds, you definitely didn’t have Covid? Remember when we all mocked the idea that some people completely lost their taste and smell for months afterwards, only for the health authorities to confirm it? It’s all so vivid, when I actually dig into my memory about it, so why am I thinking so little about it, just a year or two later?
Even in the news, references to the pandemic now seem dated and oddly quaint, given that we’re still only a few months away from the history book’s end date for the pandemic. We’re told that current inflationary pressures had part of their cause in the buildup of demand and reduction of supply that occurred during the pandemic, and those days of 0% interest rates seem hard to conjure. Was it really like that?
Of course, a lot of the media being released at the moment was conceived or created during the lockdowns, and these feelings are particularly potent here. When the characters in murder mystery The Glass Onion are introduced to the audience through their masks (the toxic YouTube bro wears a skull mask, the toxic lifestyle vlogger wears a fabric net which doesn’t cover her mouth), I thought, Well, that’s aged badly. But it hasn’t, has it? The message still works, and it’s a nice bit of characterization. Even if people don’t wear masks on the reg anymore, it’s not like we’ve all forgotten, is it?