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The Year of Separation

ISSUE:  Spring 2021


The anniversary of the coronavirus pan- demic isn’t marked by a single date so much as a grim series of them, from the mysterious illnesses reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, to the first recorded cases of COVID-19 in January 2020, and all the dates marking its ruthless progression since. The anniversaries are staggered depending on where you were last year—London or Singapore, Seattle or Madrid. My own memory takes me back to March 5, 2020, trying to stay calm on a flight to New York. I landed maskless—nearly everyone was, astonishing in hindsight—with news of eighteen cases of COVID-19 just north of the city. I stayed holed up in my hotel room for the most part, wiping every surface, watching the news obsessively. When I did go out, I walked—thirty blocks, forty blocks—too anxious to take the subway or a cab. By the time I flew home, three days later, cases had topped a hundred statewide, with the first one in the city itself. My last night there, several of us went out for a nervous but spirited dinner. It was the last time I hugged a friend; it’s been a year and counting since.

Looking back, it’s chilling to consider how radically the culture and condition of the country would shift. To recall how nerve-racking those days in early March were, knowing how much worse things would get, is to marvel at a kind of innocence. I remember, too, a particular quality of something not quite hope and not quite denial, an anxious confidence many of us shared since we couldn’t fathom the bleak statistics at the edge of certain predictions, stats we’ve since blown past. 

The anniversaries of the pandemic are strange ones to mark. The first case. The first death. Is there an anniversary for when this emergency, in all its nuances and severity, finally registered in the consciousness of the country? There’s no anniversary for when we officially took it seriously. That transformation has been the hardest to observe, and has only been partly realized since any gesture of seriousness also signaled a rupture between citizens. State lockdowns were either evidence of governments actually doing something or tyranny baring its teeth. The moment many of us began to reckon with the virus was the moment we parted ways with those denying it, when a sane public-health response—which is rooted in a kind of patriotism and commitment to the good of the commons—was spun as an infringement threatening a country’s sacred values. In this way, a body politic that was cracking apart over race fractured further over yet another aspect of our collective well-being.

This was, in other words, a year of separation, of cleaving, of watching loved ones slip away on the other side of the glass, of camaraderie suffocated by bit rates, of pixelated, garbled farewells. Of simple precautions becoming ideological ultimatums, an abandoning of common sense. All the while there was a powerlessness in watching these separations happen.

In her essay that accompanies our cover portfolio—a visual diary by Dina Litovsky of New York’s surreal transformation under lockdown last spring—VQR Editor at Large Leslie Jamison alights on the peculiarity of the city’s windows at night—the separateness they impose while briefly indulging a fantasy of escape, and the impossibility they ultimately define. “These lit windows become symbols not just of all the barriers between us,” she writes, “but also our longing.” Embedded in that longing is an imperative: to hang on, especially now that the predictions have a cautiously upbeat tenor, and summer might actually be summer again, and the disorienting panic and sadness of a plague year can give way to making sense of it, and to a mending that might follow.

— Paul Reyes


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