Harrop: How will we describe pandemic life in years to come?

Comparisons to World War II come close, but there are significant differences between then and now.

By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist

Decades from now, today’s young will be sharing vivid memories of the pandemic of 2020. They will tell grandchildren what it was like seeing grown-ups go about their daily business in face masks. They may recall closed schools and teachers reaching them through a videoconferencing application then known as Zoom.

Some storytellers may marvel at those who refused to protect themselves and suffered death or lasting physical damage as a result; or who exposed loved ones to the same. And they may recall the president as a bizarre figure who kept downplaying a disease that took hundreds of thousands of American lives.

The British media have tried to liken this generation to young people who endured the Blitz bombings during World War II. “How do the remaining Blitz generation — whose courage in crisis has long been considered a gold standard of national resilience — think all this compares?” The Independent asked.

The elderly survivors see similarities but also big differences between then and now. People in wartime knew who was trying to kill them. “It was the Germans,” 82-year-old Patricia Thompson said. Now any one of us “could be walking around with this disease.”

Unlike in the case of COVID, there was little Brits living in the cities could do to save themselves other than race for a shelter. High-explosive bombs and incendiaries just kept falling from the sky. Staying six feet apart or wearing face masks made no difference.

“One really thought that this was the end,” novelist Graham Greene wrote, “but it wasn’t exactly frightening; one had ceased to believe in the possibility of surviving the night.”

One morning after a bombing raid, Thompson said, she called on a friend for a walk to school. The 4-year-old had been killed overnight, so Thompson continued on by herself. That death could stalk anyone had become matter-of-fact.

Another huge difference, 88-year-old Jean Corne said, is the human contact that is missing now. She recalled her family going under a kitchen table when they heard bombs falling but, in quieter times, her father asking neighbors over for darts, sewing. And laughing.

Schools stayed open during the war. So did pubs. One could still meet for a beer anywhere in the country.

Depression-era Americans similarly recall how a sense of solidarity took some of the sting off very tough times. My 95-year-old aunt spoke often of the economic trauma but also of how families and neighbors banded together, offering connection amid shared pain.

Confronting the coronavirus requires the opposite: avoiding other humans. The loneliness suffered by the elderly in group homes, separated from loved ones for months and often dying far from family will remain an enduring raw memory.

Daily existence under nonstop stress can become so charged that people caught up in it feel unsettled by the return to normality. American Pamela Churchill, later Pamela Harriman, who stayed in London through the Blitz, expressed a certain unease as the intensity of war approached an end. “I am afraid of not knowing what to do with life in peacetime,” she wrote.

What’s going to happen here when vaccines flow freely and the coronavirus shrivels for lack of victims? Of course, we’ll be relieved to no longer feel hunted by disease. Imagine returning to crowded theaters and sports stadiums.

But there will be less quiet time, less bread baking. A return to frenetic traveling, and more crowded roads. For many who didn’t lose their jobs or get sick, this crisis provided a curious amount of serenity.

Without a doubt, the pandemic of 2020 will stand out as an extraordinary period in American history. It will be up to the young among us to explain how strange it all was.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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