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Where were you when the world stopped? It’s a grim question, one with answers unique to every individual who has endured a year of living in the pandemic.
For some, it was the early reporting from China about a new virus strain that first sounded alarm bells. For others, the first confirmed cases, including those in Virginia, served as the wake-up call that the disease was a real and immediate threat.
But on March 11 last year, everything changed.
That day, the head of the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 was a global pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a household name now if he wasn’t then, told Congress in a high-profile hearing that the coronavirus would get much worse than the 600 cases confirmed at the time. Sporting events across the country suspended play.
Be it that WHO declaration, Fauci’s ominous warning, the sight of empty basketball courts or even actor Tom Hanks’ announcement that he had contracted the virus, everyone has a moment they remember when the seriousness of the situation was unmistakable.
Into the unknown we plunged. Social distancing and hand washing were encouraged, followed by limitations on gatherings and travel. Masks were mandated. Schools were closed. Restaurants and business were restricted.
The worst was yet to come, as we now know. COVID-19 has claimed more than 526,000 American lives, including more than 9,700 in Virginia. More than 2.6 million are dead worldwide, the global landscape changed by this pathogen.
Many more were sickened, some seriously and some permanently, by the coronavirus. But there is no one left untouched by what’s happened in the last year.
In Hampton Roads, the frontline health care workers who performed heroic work in the face of that horror will be forever shaped by the experience. We owe each of them so much for their courage and will never be able to repay that debt.
Bravery wasn’t confined to the area’s hospitals and clinics. From grocery store clerks and delivery drivers, to essential manufacturers, food workers and mail carriers, there are so many people — our family, friends and neighbors — who stepped forward when the circumstances demanded it.
Much was made of the disinformation artists and conspiracy theorists — those who proudly proclaimed, in the face of all evidence, that COVID-19 wasn’t worse than the flu — but the fact is those charlatans were vastly outnumbered by area residents who honored the guidelines, did what was asked and reached out to help others.
That spirit of common purpose — of compassion and resolve — gave us hope when we needed it and strength to carry on when things looked their worst. If there is something to take from this awful experience, it should be that.
There is still a tremendous amount of grief and pain and loss that permeates our region today. There are empty chairs at too many dinner tables, empty desks in too many offices and empty pews in too many churches. That anguish will linger.
The world changed abruptly and dramatically a year ago. Few of us were prepared for what unfolded, and there is much we would do differently if given another chance. But we shouldn’t need a deadly disease to show our gratitude to those who serve, or to be helpful and kind toward one another.
We should strive to be more compassionate toward others, to help when and how we can and to try to build tighter and more connected communities — to know our neighbors and give them strength, understanding they will be there when we need some for ourselves.
And we should also take clear notice of what the pandemic revealed — the need to strengthen our health systems and reduce inequity of care, to broaden our safety net programs and make them more resilient, to plan for worst-case scenarios and to put our trust in the most knowledgeable and experienced rather than those with the loudest voices.