This time a year ago, we’d all settled into the reality of the pandemic. We were way past the optimism of “two weeks to stop the spread” and knew we were in for the long haul.
At that time, nearly every conversation I had eventually wound around to the question of, “When do you think this will end?”
I’ll admit, I had a vision (half-baked as it was) of a glorious day of celebration. A ceremonial moment when we would all simultaneously rip off our masks and dance in the streets.
I wanted catharsis. Closure.
Without fully realizing it, I had a moment in my mind like the one pictured in the famous Life magazine photograph V-J Day in Time Square, where a United States soldier, fresh home from victory in World War II, kisses a nurse during a parade.
The war was over. The boys were home. America was victorious.
But with the coronavirus, we were asking the wrong question. It isn’t, “when will this end?”
It’s, “How will we know when it’s over?”
In a way, it was over when an effective vaccine was developed. But in the day to day, that changed nothing. There was no collective moment of relief. Was this over when I got my vaccine?
Even the vaccine was not a moment of reckoning. One shot or two, there is still a protracted waiting period. No bell of celebration dings when you hit the two-week mark of freedom.
Was it over the first time I walked into a store without a mask on?
Of course it’s not over. But how will we know when it is?
Will it be over when everyone is vaccinated, which is never going to happen? Is it over when the vaccine is available for kids? Is it over when I go back to the office, or when everyone goes back to the office?
Spoiler alert: there are people never going back to the office, either because they lost their jobs or they can work from home forever.
Is it over when kids go back to school full time? Or when Taylor Swift goes back on tour?
There will never be a parade. There will never be a moment.
We will never get to celebrate the end together and then move on with our lives.
It was naïve of me to think we’d get a moment to collectively celebrate the end of coronavirus together like we did the end of World War II.
But hold on a minute.
Am I naïve to think there was such a moment for World War II?
The moment that soldier kissed that nurse was not the end of World War II. Of course it wasn’t. And if it was, it certainly wasn’t celebrated by the whole world in the same moment. Only the people around saw it. The rest of the world didn’t see it until a week later when Life magazine published it. Certainly, the publication of a photograph didn’t end the war.
In fact, though Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945, the day this photograph was taken, World War II didn’t formally end for another two weeks, on September 2, 1945.
When did World War II end?
If you were living in the hell of Auschwitz, it ended on January 27, 1945 when the Soviets liberated the camp.
The war ended for Hitler on April 30, 1945 when he committed suicide rather than face the world and pay for his crimes against humanity.
It ended for the western alliance on May 8, 1945, VE Day, when Germany surrendered.
Oh, but wait, it didn’t end for Russia until two days later when the Germans surrendered to them.
But the war wasn’t over when Germany surrendered. The United States would still go on to drop not one, but two atomic bombs on Japan.
Surely the war ended the moment that second bomb hit Nagasaki.
But I imagine if your son (or daughter) was in Japan or Europe, the war didn’t end for you until he was home again, parade or no parade.
And if he didn’t come home, the war ended for his mother the day she found out he’d been killed, whether that was the first or last day of combat.
The country celebrated, as well it should, but it didn’t snap back to its pre-war position. People had changed, the country had changed. And recovery didn’t happen overnight. While most of the formal rationing programs ended, many goods were still difficult to find in the aftermath of the war. Sugar was rationed until 1947, a full two years after the war ended.
But all these rough edges are smoothed out by the passage of time, until we’re left with the idea that there was a terrible war, the men went to fight and the women went to work, and then it was over, and there was a parade, and a soldier kissed a girl and everyone moved on. And for awhile women pretended they wanted to be perfect 50’s housewives when what they really wanted was to go back to work.
When will the coronavirus end? When you get the vaccine. When you go back to the office. When you go to your first party, see the first person you haven’t in a long time, get back on an airplane.
For some it ended when they lost a loved one—or perhaps for them it never ends.
The coronavirus will be smoothed out too in the pages of history. People who didn’t live through it will just say, oh yes, there was a virus, people couldn’t go anywhere, and then there was a vaccine and everything went back to normal. And for a while we all pretended….
Well, that part of the story hasn’t been written yet.
When will we know that? How will we know?
I know what I’ve learned from the coronavirus.
The difference between reading about history and living it.