What Will We Remember About 2020?
Contemplating what will stay with us, what will fade away
Along our journey in life, impactful historical mile markers tend to set the generational tone of our collective trek. For my grandparents, who were either learning to crawl or were taking their first steps during the Great Depression, it was World War II, irrespective of the few-year age gap between them. For their children, my parents, their awareness of a bigger, wider world beyond themselves indelibly shifted the day Lee Harvey Oswald ascended to the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository in Dallas to shoot and kill President John F. Kennedy, and continued through the '60s and into the Vietnam War.
My father turned 17 just a few months after the Selective Service announced that there'd be no further draft calls for U.S. men to report for duty to service in the Vietnam War. But still, high school friends, relatives, and friends he'd make later in life were called upon and did serve. And the war did weigh heavy on him through them and generational sharing of sadness, anger, anxiety, regret, and frustration. I often wonder how the weight might've been different if he carried it himself.
While both of my grandfathers were drafted in WWII, only one actively served overseas, seeing early conflict from Normandy inward across the European Continent. The other was the second to last to be drafted from his small Southwestern Pennsylvania town. He went to basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi, not knowing whether the war would welcome him one or two oceans away. It didn't. Being born just five years after my older grandfather made all the difference in his world.
Yet, both saw the world through the same bifocal view: The Depression, and The War. Only their prescriptions were different.
Growing up, I remember hearing the shared intro to the same big stories that featured the same big elements with minor details differing: I remember when, I remember where…
I remember when Pearl Harbor was bombed… I remember where I was when Kennedy was shot… I remember…
I remember wondering if, or when, I'd have a I remember… generationally-shared life moment.
A month before I turned 17, growing up in a small, Southwestern Pennsylvania town, I hadn't given the Middle East much thought. If you'd had asked me to point out Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan, or Iraq on a map, I might've been confident in getting one, if any at all, of those right. My age and interests had much more to do with that ignorance than my location or high school history lessons.
But I can tell you that I remember where I was when I first heard that American Airlines Flight 11 struck the northern tower of the World Trade Center. And I can remember, with vivid detail, when United Airlines Flight 175, at 9:03 a.m., collided with its southern sister tower. And just over a half-hour later when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. And at 10:03 a.m. when United Airlines Flight 93 dropped from the skies in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
While we didn't know it at the time, nearly 3,000 people would die that day. While I don't remember the exact day with exact details like I did in the moment when the carnage was unfolding on live TV, I do remember wondering then: Did I even know 3,000 people? Like, shook-their-hand-know-them?
The enormity of that singular moment of death clung to me throughout the coming years. It still does. And as I've grown older, I've wondered what other I remember whens I might enter into the catalogue.
Because, of course, my parents, baby boomers, had also lived through the attacks on Sept. 11, and the longest U.S.-involved wars to follow. And their parents, the Greatest Generation, had lived through the Kennedy assassination, the '60s, and the Vietnam War as well.
As it stands, I can't yet say whether I'll remember with the same precision the details of Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020 as I do Tuesday, Sept. 11., 2001.
What I will remember, though, is sitting at my computer, deleting most of the draft of a Year-in-Review look-back at the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic my editor had asked me to write for the year-end issue. I'll remember being crushed by a record number on a record day that likely won't hold that record for long.
That number: 3,011. Which came a week after 2,885, which, in turn, had come eight months after 2,752. In between, nearly 290,000.
That is the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States — the single-day record of deaths in the United States as it stands on Thursday, Dec. 11 at the time I am re-writing this story; the single-day record of deaths in the United States set the week prior; the single-day record of deaths in the United States set in April; and, the number of deaths that have occurred in the United States in between April's record date and December's.
In terms of mass-casualty days in United States history, the Great Galveston Storm of 1900 remains at the top at 8,000. Second, the Battle of Antietam in 1862.
Then, it was 9/11. But at 3,011, more people died in a single day from COVID-19 on Dec. 10, 2020 than those who died during the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in September 2001.
Will we remember 12/10 the same way we remember 9/11? As the December 2020 COVID-19 death toll crowds the top-10 list of mass-casualty dates, it's hard to tell whether we'll remember 12/10 or 12/11 or 12/12 or …
Looking back to Sept.16, 2020, when I filed a story about how COVID-19 is impacting our lives, the way we live, and our livelihoods, which would run one week later, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 194,092 COVID-19-related deaths in America. Total confirmed cases, at that date, stood at 6.5 million.
By the time the story was published, the numbers had gone up.
Today, those deaths in the U.S. are at 295,450, up 101,358 in just under 3 months. The total confirmed cases are up 9.2 million in the U.S., from 6.5 to 15.7 in the same period.
Then, Pennsylvania, with its 151,081 confirmed positive cases, ranked 12th highest amongst the states and territories. Nearly 8,000 had proven fatal, where the state ranked ninth overall.
Since then, Pennsylvania, with a total population just shy of 13 million, added 312,094 positive cases, totaling 463,175. Deaths total over 12,000.
To put that in the context of Erie County, that's near the equivalent of losing the borough of Edinboro and Summit Township combined.
In Erie, when I wrote that piece in September, there had been 1,439 positive cases reported and 37 deaths confirmed. Today, those numbers are 7,667 and 111, respectively.
In three months, that's 6,228 more positive cases and 74 additional deaths.
Put another way, from the onset of the pandemic in mid-March through the middle of September, Erie County had reported an average of roughly 240 positive cases per month and just six deaths.
In the span of the last three months, Erie County's average are now 2,076 positive cases per month and just shy of 25 deaths per month.
Where are we headed from here? That depends on what changes — from our personal choices governing our behavior, to the orders, directives, and measures executed by those we've collectively chosen to govern us.
As we close out the year, we find ourselves experiencing more COVID-19 cases and deaths while we have fewer restrictions on our lives than we did in April with more restrictions and fewer deaths.
What does this all add up to if we're to make sense of 2020, reviewing the year of the pandemic?
Perhaps that's best answered by asking: What will we remember most from this year?
Will we remember a particular day for a particular reason? A week? A month? The entire year?
Will that thing we remember be the first reported cases of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States in February? Or, locally, the first cases reported in Erie County in March? Or will we be thinking of this globally, what it's meant worldwide?
Will we remember the first celebrities to report positive COVID-19 results, like when Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson did in March? Or will we remember the latest celebrities, such as Ellen DeGeneres, who announced her condition via a tweeted screenshot?
Will we remember when none of us could find Clorox wipes on the shelves? Or will we remember when our commander-in-chief pondered aloud whether injecting bleach might help fight off the virus?
Will we remember when we learned to make sourdough bread at home, or will we remember the eyes above the mask of the cashier who rung us out at the grocer when we bought the yeast, the same eyes that saw throngs of yeast-purchasing patrons, sometimes-not-always six-feet apart, pass through their checkout lines during one of many eight-hour shifts?
Will we remember when we cut our own hair for the first time? When we got our first professional haircut while wearing a mask? When we made the decision not to get a haircut at all?
Or, will we remember our first takeout? Or how many times we ordered UberEats, putting someone else to the task of fetching our food and transporting it to us so that we didn't have to feel unsafe leaving our homes? What was it that we ate on Monday? Did we finish it, or did it end up in the trash?
Will we remember the first restaurant patio we revisited when restrictions and mitigations were lifted? Was it a pilsner or an IPA we sipped when we felt a little risky — or was that the feeling of liberation? Did we leave a tip? Is 20 percent still enough? Will we remember when we decided to do it again, or go back to just delivery or takeout?
Will we remember when our favorite local business announced their online shopping portal? Or that they were going to wait it out? Or when they opened, how they opened? Or when they closed, and whether it was temporary or permanent?
Will we remember when we taught ourselves the ukulele in April, or the kindergarten teacher in September juggling a Zoom window full of students struggling to pay attention? Or the student whose face wasn't on screen because they didn't have the right tech or enough bandwidth?
Will we remember scouring home-improvement stores for deep-freezers to start stocking up? Or will we remember the make-shift tractor-trailer morgues parked outside of hospitals that couldn't process the dead quickly enough?
Will we remember which governor imposed which restrictions? Lifted them? Re-imposed them? Tested positive for the coronavirus? Or when other elected officials tested positive? Or when that New Hampshire speaker of the house died from it?
Will we remember when we learned the definition of essential worker and whether or not what we do is viewed as essential? Will we remember when we, or someone we know and love, was furloughed, that their line of work didn't work out during a pandemic?
And what did we do with that government-issued one-time stimulus of $1,200? Did we use that for the yeast? Or the Eats? Or did that go towards the rent, the electric, the gas to power the stove to bake the bread, the gas in the car to drive to our next shift standing behind plexiglass, checking out the yeast-buyers, the buy-in-bulk purchases, the return-shoppers who bought a half-gallon of milk on Monday and are back Tuesday because they're thirsty shoppers?
Will we get another stimulus? Why was it just once? How much impact does 133 bucks — $1200 divided over 9 months — really have?
Will unemployment benefits be extended? Will the U.S. government pass a budget before year's end?
Will those who can't make their rent or their mortgage receive more help? Are they on their own?
Will we remember when bars were reopened then closed again? When in-person schooling resumed, then went virtual again?
Is there anything left from that initial check? Did we put a few hundred bucks in savings? Do we have any savings left? Did we have any to start with before the pandemic?
Can we remember what, when, and how…?
And why? Why should we remember? And who? Who have we — will we — remember? Will we remember ourselves in the moment, the moments?
Will we remember the 3,011 lost souls and the day it happened? The numbers — the souls reflected in but sterilized by data points — that came before? Those after, and if so when? And when we hoped it would stop, became numb to it, knew someone who died from it?
Will we remember 2020 collectively or month-by-month? What happened in the pre-pandemic months? Surely, there were the usual normal life occurrences. The losses — the non-COVID-related deaths, divorces, demotions. The gains — the births, the marriages, the job promotions . And the mundane — when was it that the novelty wore off and the boredom crept back, followed by hints of more anxiety, moaning like an alley cat at night?
Will we remember 2020 at its end? The race to roll out a vaccine? The mounting worry over whether hospitals large and small, urban and rural can keep up with the climbing numbers of those in need of ICU care, to be put on ventilators?
Will we remember 2020 for the politics? Were we always-maskers, or never-maskers? Or masks-but-only-when…?
Will we remember this as the year we trusted or distrusted science? Trusted or distrusted democracy?
The shock of the singular moments that leave us in awe — the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers — leave us little choice in the matter when it comes to remembering. Few of us consciously made the decision to make the memory; instead, the moment's tremors ran deep enough to leave a lasting impact.
While we waited in fear for another attack on U.S. soil, both after Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, the follow-ups never came. Yet, the trends suggest that more Dec. 10s are on the horizon in 2020 and into 2021.
Because of the continuous nature of the COVID-19 crises — the public health crisis, the economic crisis, the fill-in-the-blank-with-an-adjective-personal-to-you crisis, as the pandemic has upended our way of living — we are living through an unrelenting series of singular moments. Whether we remember them — the names of the dead, the names of the living, the decisions we made, and the things we did or are doing — is our choice.
Likewise, we will have choices in 2021: To continue to practice adaptive behaviors for our own personal safety and the collective good; or, to not — and to give up in search of going back. To be vaccinated; or not to be vaccinated.
These are the questions. And the moments to which they are attached will be of importance to each generation living through the I remember when in 2020, and onwards into the next in search of the I remember post-COVID-19 future.
The online edition of this article contains some additional content. Ben Speggen can be contacted at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen