The stories of the coronavirus era

The stories of the coronavirus era
© Getty Images

When our own lives intersect with moments of calamity, suddenly those events of history become personal. For example, “Let me tell you where I was when the planes hit the World Trade Center.” Or if you are old enough to remember, “Here is how I learned that President Kennedy was shot.”

The problem is that time, like erosion, changes the features of our stories. We forget, inflate, and conflate our experiences. As studies of eyewitness accounts of 9/11 have consistently shown, the facts as we remember them turn cloudy and even contradictory, but we still see those events clear as day. Time itself warps our own understanding. What you remember as an instant was hours or even days. Maybe it never actually occurred, but you incorporated something that you heard second or third hand as your own story. Despite your best efforts, as a human, you are wired to make myths.

That is why it is so important to preserve your experiences during historic moments as soon as they happen, or at least as quickly as possible. If your impressions are fresh, the facts, as best as you can explain them, may not spoil as much. Here are some of the impressions I have recorded since my quarantine and subsequent social isolation started amid the coronavirus.

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Every dawn in the spring above Oyster Bay holds the same magnificence. Cloudy or not, the sun rises over the Long Island Sound, etching the slate gray expanse of water with bursts of light. Birds chirp and warble from the nearby Theodore Roosevelt Audubon Sanctuary. Every morning, the roads begin crowding with commuters on the way to work. Northern Boulevard, once transited by George Washington, resembles other suburban areas in rush hour. Honking horns, blinking brake lights, and paused traffic lights. Now, however, the roads are virtually empty and eerily quiet. It sounds as if the birds are raucously celebrating their newfound solitude, or maybe there are simply no noises drowning them out as people remain at home.

So on these lonely roads, I walk my dog Theo past the grave of Theodore Roosevelt, who was buried in 1919 in the midst of the deadliest influenza pandemic in recent history. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it infected around a third of the population of the world and killed 50 million, including 675,000 in the United States. In fact, the end of World War One enabled a resurgence of the flu as people flooded into mass celebrations on Armistice Day. Additional waves would come.

At the time that Roosevelt died, public health officials began educating Americans about the “dangers of coughing and sneezing” and “careless disposal of nasal discharges.” I feel a strange sense of connection with Roosevelt today. His home, Sagamore Hill, is just up the road. There he read headlines similar to those I read now. History indeed repeats itself.

During home isolation, I have learned trivial but interesting lessons. Theo sleeps all day. The daily coronavirus briefings by President Trump are like second rate horror movies, laughable and terrifying to watch at the same time. Apparently it is really dangerous to consume disinfectant products, although that was something I always assumed was common knowledge.

I witness a resiliency and creativity that lifts my spirits. A local restaurant prepares take home meals and brings a free frozen margarita to your car while you wait, which you must finish or return what is left before driving away. The supermarket has created one way only aisles and markings to prevent customers from coming within six feet of each other. Even the local big box home improvement store, which is usually a chaotic frenzy of testosterone searching for power tools, is orderly. Customers line up outside, six feet apart, and are allowed in when an equal number exits. Even though this is New York, there is no such thing as cutting the line.

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I visit a local hospital to donate food to health care workers. For the first time in my life, the scrubs and masks they wear are like military uniforms, commanding respect and gratitude. I hear stories of people unwilling to break the communal spirit that binds our species. High school students organize a motorcade with their vehicles plastered with “Happy Birthday” signs to greet their friend. There are other signs across my neighborhood saying “Thank You Doctors and Nurses” and have been planted along our main roads and taped to front windows. Each sign, in a few words, tells a story of heroism and kinship in a population torn by politics and ideology.

There will be countless stories now and in the months ahead. Books will be written and movies will be made. But the most meaningful will be your own, recorded quickly and unaffected by the warping influences of time.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and was the chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.