As we transition from pestilence to war’s shadow, we must count the dead and comfort the living

March 6, 2022 3:33 am

A single candle burns on columnist Max McCoy’s table during a power outage in 2017. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Two years ago today I walked out of my office at Emporia State University into a new pandemic reality. It was the end of one thing and the beginning of something else. Although I could see dim shapes on the horizon moving toward us — I had been monitoring news reports about the spread of the coronavirus in Europe — I could hardly imagine how the pandemic and our failed response to it would leave us battered, bruised and branded.

It was Friday, March 6, which ordinarily would have been a glad day on campus because it was the beginning of spring break. But I had a feeling things might never be the same, so I gathered some needed things if I ended up working from home. We ate at our favorite restaurant, Radius, knowing it might be our last chance to dine out in a long time. I had pizza, and Kim had some kind of vegetarian sandwich.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Kansas was announced March 7, the first death March 11. The university extended the break by another week and when classes resumed, we were online. We found masks online, stayed far apart from others, and wiped down our groceries. Every day Kim and I checked the state and local coronavirus dashboards and would talk about the new numbers over meals or, increasingly, afternoon cocktails. News of the first death in our county came April 18.

We hoped the pandemic would be brief, perhaps no longer than a year, but we knew from reading historian John M. Barry that odds were it could last much longer. We did our best to help flatten the curve, wore our masks around others, and began a compulsive handwashing routine that made me think of Lady Macbeth. We became hermits, seeing others only when necessary. We ordered our groceries online and parked in a designated stall while they were brought to the trunk of the car. I remoted in to doctor’s visits. We were among the lucky that could work from home; many others, from first responders to fast food workers to meatpackers, had no such option.

When the furnace went out in the middle of winter and later, when a tree blown over by a wind storm took out electrical service to our home, we coped with the uncomfortable sensation of having others too close, in our basement and our back yard. While waiting for the electricity to be restored, we lit lamps and candles and I looked around at the shadows we threw on the walls of our old house and thought about how many other similar shadows had been thrown by flickering flame during the 1918 pandemic.

We are all flames that are flared and guttered by the winds of history, I thought. The residents of our home on Constitution Street during the Great Influenza, a Latin teacher at the Kansas Normal Training School (now ESU) by the name of Bill Holtz and Maude, his wife, would have understood our cloth masks, our social distancing, and perhaps our anxiety.

We watched on screens as the backlash to the killing of George Floyd roiled cities across the country, and we risked being among others to march in a local protest. As the summer simmered to a close and coronavirus deaths mounted, I became concerned the lives lost would remain an abstraction, because unlike in 1918, cause of death is seldom now reported in obituaries. I wrote a piece about the importance of seeing the names and faces of those we’d lost to the virus, the first of my Sunday columns for Kansas Reflector. My plan was to write columns for the Reflector only for the duration of the pandemic, and in July 2020 that seemed a sensible plan.

As the months rolled by, Kim and I and much of the rest of the country waited for the vaccines, knowing they would offer the best hope of beating the virus, and became increasingly dismayed as our state’s majority rallied around an anti-science, anti-mask and anti-vax movement. We had built lives on foundations of knowledge — books, research, journalism, teaching. We saw the things we hold dear come under attack, from anonymous trolls on social media to lawmakers who would weaken our institutions, spread lies about the integrity of elections, and erode confidence in American democracy. Then came Jan. 6. The insurrection ended any lingering doubt about how much trouble we were in as a country, and I wrote about how the violent fringe of the far right had historically found a home in the heartland.

During 2021, the stress of coping with civil unrest fueled by the lie of a stolen election while being subjected to successive waves of the pandemic resulted in an even worse year. At least for me. I could maintain some sense of optimism for 12 months, but beyond that I found myself fighting despair. Pandemic fatigue had set in, and a bad case of disillusionment. Although vaccines were widely available, enough of us refused the shots — egged on by the misinformed, the misguided and the shameless manipulators — to keep the pandemic rolling. Chaos broke out at school boards and other local government meetings as anti-mask activists attempted to bully public officials into dropping mandates. Cases and deaths again began to mount in late 2021, but we didn’t have much collective interest anymore in fighting the virus. Most of us had returned to face-to-face work, either voluntarily or because it was demanded by our employers.

Looking at the numbers now, it is apparent just how badly we handled the pandemic. Not all of us are culpable, of course, and our first responders and medical scientists and health care workers should be beyond indictment. But the rest of us, the politicians and the pundits and the general public, share in this failure.

– Max McCoy

Early this year, a couple of thousand people were dying each day from COVID-19, with the peak coming in the first week of February. The death count no longer commanded headlines. But Kim still kept tabs on the local dashboard. I had stopped checking the numbers, buried by what felt like two years of work that was waiting for me at school.

As of March 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had tallied 950,112 coronavirus deaths. In Kansas, according to the KDHE, there were 7,975 dead. That’s about 1 of every 365 of us in the state. Had this been any other public health crisis, this kind of preventable mortality rate wouldn’t have been tolerated. But because outrage over pandemic issues was weaponized to deepen our political divide, we became desensitized. The deaths were hidden away from us, in hospitals and nursing homes, and death was an abstraction unless we personally knew somebody who had died from the virus.

Looking at the numbers now, it is apparent just how badly we handled the pandemic. Not all of us are culpable, of course, and our first responders and medical scientists and health care workers should be beyond indictment. But the rest of us, the politicians and the pundits and the general public, share in this failure. If we deserve the government we get — and in Kansas we must have been very bad indeed to get the collection of clowns, miscreants and cult of personality sycophants holding the majority at the Statehouse — then we also must be responsible for the quality of public health care we receive. A million dead in the United States is a spot on us all that won’t be easily washed away.

It appears the end of the pandemic is at hand, both from a cultural standpoint and a medical one. As a society we appear to be finished with pandemic measures and are moving on, no matter that Americans in the thousands are still dying from the virus every week. Although the death count lags, the number of new cases is dramatically down across the United States, signaling that the pandemic may be transitioning to an endemic. It appears we will have to live with COVID-19, in some form or another, and regular vaccinations and boosters will be an everyday fact of life.

Yet, the pandemic has changed us in ways it will take years to fully understand.

Last Tuesday, Emporia State ended its mask requirement, and for the first time in two years I saw the faces of my students without masks or being separated by a computer screen. I could see the anxiety lingering in their eyes, their unease with in-person social interaction, their trembling lips. Some have chosen to continue using masks, especially those who have family members who are particularly vulnerable to the virus. The campus newspaper staff has decided to continue the mask requirement in the newsroom. But masked or not, my students have needed more emotional support and referrals to counseling than at any other time in my 15 years of teaching college. It’s the same for my colleagues. We have all been tested by the past two years. No matter how well we appear to have handled it, the pandemic has taken its toll, leaving us a little less than we were 24 months ago.

Also hastening the agreed-upon end of the pandemic, or at least our pandemic response, is the war in Europe. The Russian invasion of Ukraine represents a global challenge unequalled since the end of World War II. Putin’s putting the Russian forces on nuclear alert has underscored the consequences of a misstep for America and our NATO allies. Those calling the invasion a return to Cold War politics are missing the point that this is a very hot war, driving more than a million refugees to seek refuge in the west. The invasion has so reshaped the political terrain that we no longer have maps appropriate to the task.

The invasion has also reshaped our mental terrain, bringing again to the fore a question that has been with most of us since childhood: How to avoid world’s end? The images streaming from Ukraine, of the displaced in pandemic masks fleeing Russian tanks, are new yet disturbingly familiar. If in black and white, the scenes could be from World War II. But that impression doesn’t acknowledge the arsenals of nuclear weapons hanging over the conflict or the unprecedented and chilling Russian attack on a Ukrainian nuclear power plant. What madness is this? The plant has six active nuclear reactors and a breach would lead to a disaster even larger than Chernobyl.

When the invasion began, it seemed unlikely in the calculus of realpolitik that it would lead to another world war. But every day has brought new worries, moving us perilously closer to a nuclear exchange. The end of the world might begin with misunderstanding, a mistake or a miscalculated response. The situation is dire. A diplomatic solution remains elusive, military invention is hazardous and our hearts break for the suffering. We must find a way to help the displaced and aid democracy while somehow averting extinction for us all.

The isolation imposed by the pandemic, in which it was possible to ignore social responsibility and tolerate insurrection, has vanished. We are connected to the rest of the world, whether we like it or not. The consequences of autocracy should now be clear to us. In less than a fortnight, we are changed.

It is the end of one thing and the beginning of something else.

We must count our dead, provide comfort at home and abroad, and work together for peace.

Now that the pandemic is drawing to a kind of close, I am ending my weekly Sunday column. For 20 months, I’ve offered my thoughts on the pandemic, on politics, on democracy. But other projects now call. There are books to write. I have enjoyed extraordinary editorial support from my Kansas Reflector editors, and for that I am grateful. What I am thankful for most, however, are the kind words readers have sent about this column or that, a bit of encouragement or a shared insight, some proof that fact and writing and thinking still matter.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.