Nearly two years ago to the day, our doctor called urging that I be induced immediately because a sudden nationwide lockdown was to be announced in a matter of days. I nervously ran a hand over my nine-months-pregnant belly as he talked. "If you want your husband in the delivery room, you need to be admitted tomorrow. They are halting delivery room visitations," he issued. It was all happening too fast.
Now, after 460 million COVID-19 cases and 6 million fatalities worldwide, we are quietly transitioning to living with a virus that upended so many lives. Yet this transition from pandemic to endemic is unpunctuated. Seemingly we have little to celebrate.
Months before my due date, my gut foretold that the corona epidemic would eventually catch fire. Fifteen years working in the international development sector trained me to know the warning signs of health crises.
I had worked as a frontline Ebola responder in Liberia during 2014-15, visiting Ebola treatment units, helping manage various programs supporting women and children affected by the disease, including Ebola survivors. I learned to identify people who were outbreaking. In fact, I had been quarantined for possible Ebola infections twice. I knew the intimate face of a deadly pandemic. So, when media channels started chattering about this new virus spreading around Asia and parts of Europe, my PTSD kicked in.
Earlier in February, I had preventively warned loved ones to buy masks, gloves, and antibacterial products. My warnings were laughed off, dismissed as regnancy hormones. Even my physician said it wasn't something to worry about yet.
In early March, I defended my PhD dissertation to a crowd of professors, and, days later, we hosted a baby shower in our cramped duplex apartment. We felt safe enough to do in-person events, but we asked people who had any symptoms, like a cough or fever, not to come; you know, pre-Covid standard social protocol for any expecting parents. Looking back on it, I could laugh.
I gave birth to our daughter on the first day of the national lockdown. The maternity hospital was turned upside down by the shutdown. Professionals were anxious, asking me for outbreak policy advice after learning about my Ebola response experience. I was trying to explain sanitation stations and proper PPE gear while getting an epidural. It was like giving birth through the looking glass.
Our daughter has only known a world turned upside-down by the COVID-19 pandemic. She grew up thinking masks are for peek-a-boo and dress up. Going out in public is a treat. Crowds are dangerous. During her short life, the world has undeniably changed.
Working as an assistant professor of global health policy at the University of Texas–Dallas, my colleagues and I know recorded Covid rates are inaccurate and at best only capture just a small proportion of the true numbers — with reported active cases estimated to be up to ten times higher.
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The toll of Covid is particularly shocking in low-income regions that still face untold losses from the pandemic, often linked to unequitable gaps in COVID-19 vaccination rates. Despite international efforts, only one in ten Africans are vaccinated. For me, these numbers have faces and names.
In February 2022, Daniel, a Liberian colleague, called me sobbing. Weeks earlier he drove hospital to hospital trying to find a bed for his father suffering from Covid. It was hopeless. Daniel and his father both survived tragic civil wars, economic crises, and Ebola. Yet, his father suffocated to death in the backseat of a car as his son desperately tried to find medical help.
The human costs are great. More Americans have died in the last two years from Covid than the total number of military fatalities from WWI (1917-18), WWII (1941-45), Vietnam (1965-73), Korea (1950-53), the Gulf War (1990-91), and the War on Terror (2001-2021), all combined. This is the legacy of my daughter's generation, being born during the worst moment in American if not global history.
Now, here we are, the pandemic drawing to a close, the CDC and WHO more-or-less officially transitioning SARS-CoV-2 to an endemic virus like influenza. After Covid was labeled a pandemic, in the first weeks of spring 2020, the world stayed home, citizens banged on pots to celebrate the medical professionals and responders bravely walking to work, and most people didn't question the importance of social distancing and mask mandates (at least for a time). We collectively anticipated getting control of the virus, and made tentative summer plans to mark the end of the emergency together. Yet, it was an unrealized fantasy.
I am frustrated at the lack of public acknowledgement of what we have suffered. I am saddened that President Biden's State of the Union did not adequately mark this transition. After the speech, the President meandered and laughed with unmasked politicians in a crowded state room, and I wanted to break the TV. Our leaders have given us no closure. I worry this social trauma will only continue to fester.
This crisis robbed us of loved ones, made images of dying patients on ventilators and mass graves common, spread social terror, and ruined entire economies. How are we just letting this singular harrowing event die off silently? It is the unremarkable and unceremonious end of this pandemic that should frighten us the most. We must ask how much we have been changed that we stopped raging against the dying of the light.
Living through Ebola and giving birth during the shutdown have sadly taught me that life will never be what it was before 2020. Our normal is forever changed, no matter how much we don't want to acknowledge it.
I urge us to not go on as if nothing happened. Instead, we should remember together what we have been through as a people. We must weep at our losses, present awards to our medical heroes, and erect monuments so that future generations will never forget our struggle. We should also count the ironic blessings that the Covid pandemic gave us. These include lessons that reminded us not taking for granted what we have, to focus more on our family and friends, and to find parts of ourself often obscured by our busy pre-pandemic commitments, before working at home in our pajamas became normalized.
There may be a new variant or spike in Covid rates in the near future, but the world will likely never respond as it once did, not unless it is a completely new virus never before experienced at pandemic level. And so, in its second year, we bury the memories of our collective struggles. It is a funeral that no one wanted to attend.
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