AP PHOTOS: US pandemic: Half a million people live in a year
BY JOCELYN GECKER
A year ago America had no idea.
Life in February 2020 still felt normal. There were concerns about a mysterious respiratory disease just named COVID-19. There was panic buying and a sense of fear. Still, it was tempered by a large dose of American optimism. The coronavirus still felt like a foreign problem, even as U.S. authorities recorded the country’s first known death from the virus.
Exactly a year later, America has passed a terrible milestone of 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.
A relentless march of death and tragedy has distorted time and memory. It became easy to forget the shocking images of scenes that were so unthinkable day after day in a country of such wealth and power. Throughout the year, the Associated Press photographers formed a pictorial record of suffering, emotion, and resilience. It shows the year that changed America.
Looking back, we can see that it happened in phases.
In the beginning the crisis was far away.
Last February, Americans were still shaking hands and commuting to work on crowded public transit. Children were still at school in actual classrooms. Hollywood icon Tom Hanks walked the red carpet at the Oscars without knowing a month later that he and his wife were going to sign COVID-19. Spring baseball practice drew the usual crowds with no face mask in sight.
However, a threatening cruise ship with COVID-infected passengers circled off the California coast. Within weeks, the Grand Princess – and the initial state and federal government efforts to prevent her from getting ashore – became a symbol of America’s misguided belief that she could keep the disease away.
Words like disconnecting and social distancing weren’t part of our national vocabulary in those early days. Few of us wore masks as we stood in long lines to store groceries and clear toilet paper shelves.
Heartache and despair came quickly.
Nightmarish scenes that we had seen in China and Italy reached America, and the nation became aware. Nursing homes near Seattle became the sites of the first fatal outbreak in the United States. We watched the elderly and frail people suffer alone: an eighty-year-old with COVID-19 stretched out in a hospital bed with her family blowing a kiss through a window.
The World Health Organization declared the crisis a pandemic in March and everything from college campuses to corporate headquarters has been resolved. The NCAA announced that the spring rite for so many Americans – the college basketball tournament – would be played in largely empty arenas, and then abruptly canceled it.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, became a household name in daily press conferences. When he estimated in March that 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die from the virus, the horror was tempered by total disbelief. President Donald Trump hailed hydroxychloroquine as a “game changer,” but medical experts disagreed.
American buzz stalled when hotspots exploded across the country. The typically crowded Los Angeles freeways ended in eerie stretches of open roads. The lights came on in Times Square, but the legendary energy and crowd disappeared. April felt like Armageddon in New York City; Ambulances sped constantly through deserted streets, body bags being stored in refrigerator trucks parked in front of hospitals, where they served as makeshift morgues and powerful symbols of death.
Aerial photos captured by AP revealed another unthinkable sight: a mass grave in New York City for unclaimed bodies of COVID-19 victims. Workers in hazmat suits lowered wooden coffins, neatly stacked one on top of the other, into deep trenches dug in a pottery field off the coast of the Bronx.
We marveled at the heroism of the healthcare workers and tried to show our gratitude. New Yorkers clapped and cheered and slammed the pots every night at 7 p.m. to honor these doctors and nurses.
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We mourned the uninterrupted trauma they had absorbed at the front.
Fearful and exhausted, they fought to save the sick and vowed not to let the victims die alone. In hospital rooms where countless patients had no families to comfort them, the grim task of giving comfort fell to the overworked and emotionally drained doctors, nurses, and hospital chaplains. Some held back tears as they offered uninterrupted solace and prayers. “Right now there’s so much death, it’s piling up on you, it feels heavy,” said a Georgia chaplain.
The reality that America had become the global epicenter of the deadliest pandemic in modern history came into focus.
Life moved online: everything from work and school to doctor’s appointments, birthday parties, weddings – and funerals.
It became clear that no one was safe. However, some were at far greater risk. Racial differences in infection with the virus emerged across America as data showed that blacks and Latinos were disproportionately affected by the virus and died disproportionately from it.
Catching COVID-19 became just one of many concerns as the pandemic shut society down, sending businesses skyrocketing into closure and unemployment. Paychecks shrank or disappeared for millions, and terrifying portraits of starvation surfaced across the country when Americans lined up at food banks for the first time in their lives.
Science mixed in with politics, widening a national divide and adding stress to an overwhelmed nation. Protests against racial injustice sent people, most of whom wore masks, to the streets.
In the midst of the reversal of life, we looked for normality. In some locations, restaurants posted their “open” signs and refused to adhere to home orders to greet customers ready to dine indoors. Others had creative options outdoors. In the parking lot of a California restaurant, a couple brought their own table and even fine china to enjoy Italian take-away.
Then came some glimmers of hope.
Amid the escalating loss, vaccines arrived in mid-December, launching the largest vaccination effort in US history. It felt like the first good news in a doomed year. When doctors and nurses received the first shots, some cheered. Others cried, the constant trauma and grief merged with hope in an indescribable cathartic moment.
As the vaccine supply slowly increased, many of the country’s amusement parks and stadiums reopened as mega-vaccination sites after months of vacancy.
Holidays, so often a time of hope, brought more suffering. Empty chairs at family tables were painfully reminiscent of lost loved ones. Millions of Americans ignored official requests to avoid travel and gatherings, and turned the holidays into a catalyst for new infections. More and more new cases followed after Thanksgiving and then after Christmas and New Year’s Eve, with each day seemingly setting new records for infections.
As the country and the world parted and said goodbye to it by 2020, it became clear that 2021 would look pretty similar, at least for the first few months.
Politics changed when President Joe Biden took over from Trump. After four years of chaos and controversy, the new president brought an uncomfortable sense of calm to national politics. Even so, vaccination delays persist and it is not clear whether America will win its war on the virus.
The COVID-19 death toll is below 500,000, and the virus has mutated countless times. Some variants are easier to spread and harder to protect.
We wonder what our new normal will be like. Are we ever going to rave about amusement parks or packing in movie theaters or holding large business conferences or crowding Times Square for the ball to fall by the end of another year?
The deadliest year in American history taught us that only time will tell.