Andy Larsen: Two years after the pandemic changed everything, we’re missing the unity that tragedy can bring

We never had our 9/11 or Pearl Harbor moment — and, sadly, we’re further apart than ever.

(Thibault Camus | AP) A priest carries the processional cross during the Way of the Cross ceremony at the St. Germain l'Auxerrois church in Paris, Friday, April 10, 2020. Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Andy Larsen notes, we realize we never came together as one to face this enemy.

Last week, I returned to the scene of the most notable night of my life.

The Jazz played the Oklahoma City Thunder last Sunday, just as they did on March 11, 2020. On Sunday at 6 p.m., tipoff happened at the spot on center court from which CNN’s Don Lemon interviewed me from two years ago — and I promise you there’s no other intersection of circumstances in which CNN wants to talk to the Jazz beat writer, even if they win the championship.

As I sauntered around Oklahoma City last week, I mentally added the adjective fateful to everything. I ate in the fateful dining room where I first learned Jazz center Rudy Gobert was being tested for the coronavirus. I walked the fateful halls where I saw panicked executives and politicians running about when that test turned out to be positive. And I flew in and out of the fateful airport from which Utah and Oklahoma along with NBA and Jazz officials negotiated our charter flight back home; after all, I couldn’t fly commercially after my exposure then.

My experience was at just about the highest-profile flashbulb event that existed at the beginning the pandemic. After all, it led to the cancellation of American sports, and it was the focus of an HBO documentary.

And yet, I don’t think what happened in Oklahoma City rose to the level of truly creating a communal event. Arguably, Gobert’s positive test was overshadowed by movie star Tom Hanks’ positive test, which happened on the same day. And, of course, there’s the fact that the vast majority of Utahns, let alone Americans, are simply not tuning in to a Jazz game on a random March day — the Jazz’s TV ratings reflect that about 5% of Utahns watch their games, leaving 95% of Utahns tuned in to something else. Ditto with CNN’s reporting, even.

There’s no “where were you when” moment for the coronavirus pandemic, like there was for the tragedies of 9/11, JFK’s assassination or Pearl Harbor. There was no collective, obvious switch from “living normally” to “living in crisis.” Various schools closed at various times. Some workplaces remained open; others didn’t. The experience was vastly different depending on where you lived: in New York, the hospital system was in crisis as far-more-frequent ambulance sirens filled the echoing streets. In Utah, things were just empty.

There was, for a couple of weeks to a couple of months, a period of staying home — at least most made sacrifices so that others would live. This period was more boring, tedious and strange than it was effective in building community ties. While everyone was staying home and even discovering some of the same hobbies together (sourdough starters and the Animal Crossing video game among the chief examples), no one was able to get together to confirm these bonds. Every discussion happened on social media, on the phone, or in the strange uncanny valley of Zoom hangouts.

A polarized pandemic

While there wasn’t a flashbulb moment to start the pandemic, the next stage was even more subtle: the recognition that our collective sacrifice wasn’t enough.

To be 100% clear, staying home, the way we did, saved hundreds of thousands of lives. It delayed and reduced overrun hospitals. It pushed a reckoning back months until we learned more about the disease, giving doctors time to prepare and compare notes on best courses of treatment. Knowing what we knew then, it was the right call. Despite all of that sacrifice, the disease was surviving, even thriving. In Utah, cases rose steadily in April and May 2020, and then increased more in June and July. By the winter of 2020-21, COVID-19 was well out of control.

Again, there was no particular point of shared failure. But everyone individually realized at some point that we were losing this war.

This led to different reactions from different folks. Some people calculated and said, “Well, sure, we’re losing this war, but we can still reduce its casualties by taking various actions — X, Y and Z.” Others said, “Well, since we’re losing this war, we might as well stop fighting it, try to win this side economic war, and have a good time while doing it.” Revealingly, the slant people chose seemed to be heavily determined by the side they had chosen in the completely unrelated cultural battles that dominated politics for the previous couple of decades. Losing a war doesn’t inspire unity but rather factionalism, and we had these handy factions already, so why not just stick with them?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, to protest for or against a mask mandate.

We did, though, have one last promise — an inspiring weapon to use against the virus. Truly, developing effective and safe coronavirus vaccines in less than a year is one of the most impressive accomplishments in human history. It’s right up there with the moon landing and the atomic bomb. Just like the bomb, we figured that the vaccine would end our international horror.

But even the vaccines’ introduction came in bits and spurts. The shots were given to some months before others; some received one dose, others received two. Those pesky political factions, having found a foothold in pandemic discussions where they didn’t belong earlier, invaded vaccine debates, too. More people had immunity, but the process was so individualized that we again escaped a collective feeling, the kind that could have worked to unify us.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Valerie Mitchell administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Teresa Pacheco at Midvale Elementary School, on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.

The final nail in the coffin was the omicron variant. Even our incredible scientific accomplishment of the vaccines — thanks to the smartest of us working harder than ever before — was, in the end, not enough to defeat the virus on a local or global scale. Too many people were still open season, even for those who protected themselves, the virus evaded the vaccines just barely well enough to ensure its survival and expansion.

Divided we stand

The past few months, then, just replayed the powerlessness we felt in 2020-21. As a result, even the most well-intentioned of folks, those most focused on the well-being of others, began to think individualistically. For example: “Why should I wear this uncomfortable mask, knowing that the virus is essentially everywhere anyway?” Or “Why not go on this trip that we’ve been planning?”

There’s a feeling of guilt for many associated with that step, but in the face of society as it stands, the desire to do right for your fellow man is simply overwhelmed to an absurd degree. Sure, one man can stop a convoy of tanks in Tiananmen Square, but the Tiananmen Square ant who tried to do the same escaped notice.

As we stand now, nearly 1 million Americans have died as a result of this pandemic, an unimaginable number. In Utah, thanks to our younger population, we’ve been lucky: “only” just crossing 4,500 deaths. If you had told either figure to the Andy who existed on March 11, 2020, he would have broken down in tears. I don’t think I would have been alone.

Somehow, two years later, collective sorrow isn’t the reaction. The possibility of unified grief has been beaten out of us. All we can do is saunter through the relics, come to terms with the monstrosity of our loss, then move forward — divided, not united — in a world forever changed.

Andy Larsen, one of The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utah Jazz beat writers, doubles as a data columnist. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.