For a long time, I suspect, we will think back on this past year with a sense that it has revealed many things about institutions and individuals. My hope is that, as this rift heals, its deepest effects will be the restoration of our social nature, a new love of liberty, and a renewed gratitude to God.
A year ago this week, the lived world that had been continuous in time for almost twenty years—and I’ll explain what I mean shortly—lost its continuity and faltered into an area like what the old maps used to call terra incognita. It is difficult to recapture twelve months later the rapidity with which things changed during the work week of March 9-13. Exactly a year ago today, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and the National Basketball Association announced that it was suspending its 2019-2020 season. Professional basketball is not usually where we look for signs of the times (unless it’s concessions to Xi Xinping’s China), but this decision meant billions of dollars of lost revenue and signaled a new level of alarm. That was a Wednesday.
On Friday morning, March 13, there were still only a handful of cases in Wyoming, and we were only a week away from the semester’s Outdoor Week; students were scheduled to go on trips all over the Mountain West. The reasonable response to Covid seemed to be to keep our students on campus through the following week of classes, to see how the situation developed, and then to send them on their outdoor trips as usual, where they would be in no danger of exposure. The Fremont County medical advisor spoke to the assembled community that morning, and nothing he said suggested that we should change our plans.
During the hours following, however, we heard of the first case in Fremont County at a nursing home a few blocks from our downtown campus center. Almost at the same moment, Pres. Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency. In emergency meetings that afternoon, first with the Risk Management committee and later with the faculty as a whole, we agreed that the cascading series of nationwide closures and travel restrictions made it prudent to get our students home as quickly as possible. Shelves in Lander’s grocery stores were already going empty, and we could not be sure that the supply of food for the cafeteria would continue as usual. We also lacked adequate space to quarantine students should they fall ill.
Surely, we thought, a full month would give Covid time to die down, and we could resume the interrupted semester. In the meantime, we would have to do our best to master the technology of online classes—already a deep irony at a college famous for banning cell phones to keep in-person experience at the center of education. On Saturday morning, March 14, we called an all-school assembly, and I made the announcement that we were suspending classes and closing the campus until the Thursday after Easter, April 16. The students were stunned, especially the seniors enjoying their last semester. Suddenly everyone was thrust into a scramble to get home. The next week of classes was canceled, as was Outdoor Week, and instead of kayaking or rock-climbing, everyone would be trying to negotiate online classes at home, surrounded by their noisy siblings, all of whose schools had also closed and gone online.
A year later, it is easy to see the ironies. Not only did classes not resume the week after Easter, but the great communal Easter liturgies at the heart of our faith were canceled. We will look back on March and April of 2020 as a rift in the lived world, a dislocation in time itself. Personal traumas certainly have this effect in individual lives—a normal before and a forever altered after—but nothing on this scale had happened since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. On that day, I remember federal buildings across the country being evacuated, the skies empty of air travel, and all complacencies shattered. It took days simply to understand what exactly had happened, and it took years to assimilate the long-term consequences. But time healed and resumed its continuity. Leaders and administrations came and went without any fundamental alteration in the continuity of our common world and common time.
But mid-March of last year was like 9/11, except that now it was not terrorists but our nature as social creatures that suddenly became the primary world threat. Public life abruptly stopped, because we were all potentially dangerous and also in danger, simultaneously toxic and susceptible. Paradoxically, we rediscovered home, for good or ill. Meanwhile, the specter of disease exposed all the cultural fault lines in modernity, many of which emerged politically as passions rose about the right use of governmental power—whether to lock people down or allow them to make their own decisions. Masks became political symbols, de rigueur for some, anathema for others. Churches closed for months, and, for Catholics, our normal recourse to the Body of Christ was abstracted into a virtual online space without bodies, without participation in the Eucharist. Or else “Mass” became a family time of scriptures and meditations.
By now, though it has taken a year rather than a month, things appear to be moving hungrily back to something near normal. Wyoming Catholic has been back in-person for the entire academic year despite a couple of minor outbreaks, manageable because we know better now what to expect. As a society, we know—or ought to know—that we have gotten off lightly. Our students read Thucydides on the plague that devastated Athens early in the Peloponnesian War, which was so much worse as not to be comparable. The Black Death of the Middle Ages killed 30-60% of the population of Europe, and it gives a backdrop to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Spanish Influenza of 1918-19 had the highest mortality rates among children under five and healthy adults between twenty and forty years old.
By contrast, COVID-19—though it has many mysteries—has unquestionably been deadliest among elderly people with preexisting conditions, many of whom have died in terrible isolation. For a long time, I suspect, those of us alive at this hour will think back on this past year with a sense that it has revealed many things about institutions and individuals. We do not know what new disruptions will come, but my hope is that, as this rift heals, its deepest effects will be the restoration of our social nature, a new love of liberty, and a renewed gratitude to God, not only for what we have been spared, but even more for what we have been given without our deserving.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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