I went back to my office in the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City the other day to pick something up, and I noticed an old editorial lineup document sitting on my desk. My last full workday in that office was March 12, 2020 — exactly one year ago — and I remember not taking much home with me when I left; I assumed I’d be back in a couple months.
Being there now is like seeing a prepandemic world set in amber — my wall calendar still displays March 2020, March magazines sit on the desk and that editorial lineup is from March 19, with the list of stories we were working on for that issue. One of those, slugged “DOCTORS,” talked about COVID in the future tense: “How are doctors and medical professionals preparing for coronavirus?” We allocated 800 words to that story. We could never have imagined how many words we’d devote to the subject in the months to come.
Now, as the nation marks this imprecise anniversary, we offer a few more words about how the novel coronavirus has changed our lives. It’s something a number of news outlets are doing this week, and I had an opportunity to speak with fellow journalists in other cities about how they were handling the coverage. Turns out, a lot depends on where you live.
For instance, one editor I spoke with felt it wouldn’t be right to focus on COVID deaths in their special issue because there hadn’t been many in the community her publication serves. She felt she had to respond to the readers’ experience; for them, COVID has meant an increase in isolation and loneliness, a heavier reliance on technology, and changes in relationships. She didn’t feel it would be appropriate to be mournful.
Here in Philadelphia, in contrast, we’ve had a number of COVID-related deaths, as we’ve chronicled in our “Those We’ve Lost” series. (At first, I wasn’t even sure if we should make it an ongoing series. Now we’re on Part VII.) Our goal with the series was to make sure every person in the Jewish community who has died from COVID is recognized as a unique human being rather than merely as a data point. We know we haven’t covered everyone, but staff writers Sophie Panzer and Jesse Bernstein have done a wonderful job with the information available to us. In this issue, we add two more names to our series and remember those we memorialized in the last year.
Still, as my far-flung colleague reminded me, the COVID story is not all about death. When I asked the Exponent crew what the focus of our coverage should be for this issue, Bernstein pointed out that while many people have died, many more are still alive and grappling with the way our lives have been upended. In this issue, he writes about the changes the pandemic has wrought, and how we’ve adapted to them.
I’ve noticed that when most people talk about the changes, they focus more on the daily irritations than the devastating large-scale effects. I do it myself — I’ll be annoyed by a Zoom glitch or the fog on my glasses while wearing a mask, and I have to laugh: This is what’s bothering me? I’m lucky to be alive, to be healthy, to have a job; I’m one of the fortunate people in this historical moment, and yet here I am, fuming because someone is not on mute. I suppose the human inclination toward aggravation is simply hard-wired. And kvetching is part of our birthright.
But it’s also true that when there’s so much pain and loss, it’s simply more sensible, and socially acceptable, to complain of minor afflictions than to howl with grief. In fact, in just a few weeks, the Exponent staff will go back to working in our office — and return to an approximation of normalcy. I’ll take down my March calendar, recycle those magazines and prep a story lineup for an April issue. I’ll head to the corner store at lunchtime for an egg sandwich and drink the vending machine coffee during an afternoon slump. I’ll fight traffic on my way home and resent the person who cuts me off.
Assuming the worst truly is over, we’ll be tempted to put the horror of this year behind us and move on; Jews know plenty about starting over without self-pity. But a year like this leaves scars, and some of us will need more help than others, whether pragmatically or emotionally. We all respond differently to trauma and dislocation; empathy, not judgment, is what’s required.
Whatever happens, the Exponent will be here for you. Stick with us, reach out, stay well and be safe. We hope to see you — in person — real soon.