Back at the start of the pandemic, one strain of the thinking internet’s insatiable need for copy was served by warnings against making a metaphor of the coronavirus. Forget that it came from China, that it was happening in an election year, that Trump had dismantled the National Security Council directorate charged with protecting us against such threats. Don’t take the bait.
Most of these exhortations were against casting COVID-19 as payback from some unknown dispensary of karma. Paul Elie in the New Yorker reminded us that Susan Sontag in the New Yorker had the final word on illness as metaphor in 1978 and again in 1989. She poked massive holes in this human impulse, so we mustn’t narrativize the pandemic as we narativize our individual lives.
I remember wondering what compelled people to tell other people what not to do with an unprecedented situation of unknown scale and duration. “Existential threat” has been the phrase everyone throws around without contemplating its meaning.
Read any narrative from the first months of World War II in Britain and you feel a stab of pathos—cities and towns ignorant of “the duration” and the cataclysmic events that lie ahead. In writing about life in and around London in the fall of 1939, Mollie Panter-Downes paints a picture of plucky, patriotic Brits carrying around gas masks in their cardboard boxes, complaining about the boredom and expecting the whole thing to be called off by Christmas.
Any historian will tell you that the story of any evolving public emergency is constantly being reframed. You don’t simply add a subsequent chapter but periodically rewrite the whole thing. When, for instance, the media was awash in comparative analyses between COVID and the 1918 influenza pandemic, much was made about the irresponsibility of Woodrow Wilson and American leaders downplaying the pandemic’s threat.
But then you have to ask why this black hole of public health literacy has persisted. I don’t remember much being made of the 1918 pandemic in history class, but I understood its lethality from reading Mary McCarthy’s memoir How I Grew. After both of her young and otherwise healthy parents died of the flu, she was raised by grandparents. It’s clear that McCarthy’s orphan status was not rare.
Before COVID, most Americans knew or cared little about the 1918 flu even after the resurgence of H1N1 in 2009. Most, in fact, didn’t even remember that we had a pandemic in 2009. Given this history, it’s not surprising that many have unknowingly taken to heart the advice to not make anything metaphoric of COVID. That’s because that they have not made anything at all of it.
So here we are eight-plus months into our existential normal, with the COVID positivity numbers again escalating in more than half the country and the election a day away. Most vaccines on the horizon have “sometime in 2021” delivery dates. Tony Fauci doesn’t advise against making COVID-19 a metaphor; he advises not to call this a second wave because the first one never fully subsided. He also advises that “normal” probably won’t happen again until 2022.
As I’ve been working in my apartment through COVID time, there usually comes a point in the day when I look around at the familiar stage set of furniture and pictures and dubious objets d’art and contemplate the lack of a horizon to this yet-to-crest wave. I have a hard time imagining working this way until 2022, with all these pauses to ponder our collective predicament while taking visual inventory of unchanging things.
But I do break the COVID metaphor moratorium as often and as egregiously as I can.
I imagine that one day our Groundhog Day will finally come to an end with Dr. Fauci blowing Gabriel’s trumpet, and all of our apartments and houses will do a Zoom meld into the finale of Beauty and the Beast—everyone’s furniture and pictures and objets d’art springing to humanity to become all those taken from us by COVID-19. I expect to see again remembered faces from the Times’s “Those We’ve Lost.” One minute it’s my black oak china cabinet filled with curious; the next it’s the beloved Mount Sinai nurse who didn’t want his mom and dad to know he was sick because they’d worry. That ginger jar lamp with the old-timey pink bulb—the young woman named Hailey with the beautiful eyes.
And this only opens the floodgates for more brazen metaphors. After all, the eight-plus-month existential wait-out of this pandemic is just a mirror of the 48-month existential wait-out of the Trump presidency.
Before that trumpet makes it way to Dr. Fauci, it’s in the hands of Barack Obama on January 20, so he can work his magic to hail a new chief who will put an end to this sinister curse. Suddenly the career civil servants from the State Department, DOJ, EPA, CDC and HHS all materialize from their deactivated badges to start fixing the proverbial roof. The slats from the nine new miles of Trump’s wall whip themselves into a thousand deported parents to embrace their 545 lost children. The White House wall with the portrait of Andrew Jackson pulls a Young Frankenstein to swivel into a portrait of Harriet Tubman.
We use metaphors to imagine a way out. We need them. It may be our sloppy humanity at play, as opposed to the seamless Silicon Valley optimization of COVID limitations to excel at parkour, teach yourself landscape masonry, make a documentary about your lockdown accomplishments.
We can’t separate these meandering strings of anxious days from the stories implanted in our heads by history and culture. That’s because we have finite lives, and the most valuable commodity is time. For those who haven’t lost someone to the virus or aren’t still struggling with its health effects, time is what we have surrendered and sacrificed. Imagining a way to get back that parcel of unknown potential, to re-find our estranged selves from March 2020, is how we stay human. §