Covid-19 has brought 18 months of grief. More than half a million have died from the virus in the United States, day after day, relentlessly; although we can almost see to the end, this dark moment has not seemed temporary. So much has been precarious for so long. But the grief we’ve felt has come from more than death. Grief has swept through us. All around, there is tremendous suffering.
Grief is always individual. Multiplied across a country, these individual griefs leave a great sadness. Grief is loss—what have we sadly lost, collectively? Years of life, years of health; our actuarial tables have shifted. Prolonged grief has had the expected effects: depression, anxiety, cardiovascular decline. Also countable and fallen: jobs and income.
But we’ve also lost confidence. We couldn’t quite control or command Covid-19. We looked for solace in uncertain science. We clung to changes in graphs and curves. With our data and models, we believed we could control and predict Covid-19. But viruses do not obey. We continue to reset and retime our goals. We have lived in uncertainty. Suffering causes humility.
We lost, for a time, our habits. We withdrew. We stayed still, indoors. We have, many of us, been emotionally paralyzed, fearful. We’ve been busy trying to survive. We’ve been consumed by this effort, while pretending to do the work we have, and caring for our children. We have said goodbye on video cameras. We have watched funerals rather than attend them. Our rituals have been interrupted.
Although it feels like it never will, grief passes. And so grief, when it is with us, carries within it a future. It has been a truly remarkable 18 months of movement-building, social change, and perhaps profound shifts in ideas, perspectives, and frameworks. Our Covid-19 grief has merged somehow with centuries of racial grief, now publicly experienced death by death. We’ve spent time alone (if we’re fortunate with a few caring people), but we’ve come out to protest en masse, in acts of defiance.
There is no love of life without despair of life, Camus wrote. We appreciate in a new way the hard work of others in this time of grief. Amidst the complexities and uncertainties of this year, we have seen openings past our vaccines. Grief has pierced us, but will we change? We know where we are; where do we want to go? If sadness is a clarifying force in the wake of Covid-19, so much the better. Our health resides in hope.
Michael Stein & Sandro Galea
As we re-emerge from the pandemic, 2021 stands to be a turning point year for public health. In The Turning Point’s weekly essays, we reflect on what we learned during 2020, and what we are learning during 2021, that can guide us to the creation of a better, healthier world.