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Ideas

A letter from the summer of 2020

Imagining what lies ahead.

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All I see are waves. I’m standing on the shoreline at Marconi Beach, so that only makes sense. It’s late August, and the beaches have long since opened. This didn’t quite save the tourist season, but every evening tastefully masked vacationers line up outside Mac’s on the Pier in Wellfleet; toilet paper is still in short supply, but lobster rolls are abundant. Staring out at the surf and a lone bodyboarder braving the sharks and a rough break, I can almost forget what the year has wrought, but not quite. In the waves I only see peaks and troughs, an echo of countless projections and estimates, signs of respite and resurgence.

It has been a strange and sad summer, with pockets of routine dappling a season of surreal headlines. You didn’t know anyone who died until you did. She went slow and painfully, or fast, before he could call an ambulance, like a scene stolen from “The Stand.”

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In July the Red Sox returned to play an abbreviated schedule in front of empty stadiums; it should have been a disappointment, but instead it felt like a gift — a familiar rock to which we might all cling. Otherwise, with the fireworks nixed, the festivals canceled, and our public spaces half empty, the summer’s record-setting temperatures felt like another retribution.

Without overnight camps, our children grew restless and bored. The heat drove the privileged inside where the novelty of virtual dinner parties and celebrity yoga classes had long since faded. The unlucky, the essential, kept taking the bus to work, and prayed every time their hand grazed a suspect surface.

Everyone has a story about what they did when the governor started easing the lockdown. There were celebratory haircuts, of course, and happy reunions with beloved eateries. The first thing we did was go to my son. He’s autistic and non-verbal, and lives in a suburban house near his school, the New England Center for Children. For 91 days our only contact with Finn had been over Skype.

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It’s easy to forget, when you’re with your child every day, that parenting is a physical act, conducted in intimate proximities, and their absence induces a physical response, a vivid and keening void, the empty space between our useless arms. When Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French writer who suffered from locked-in syndrome after a stroke, was visited by his children, he experienced the full weight of this loss: “I, his father, have lost the right to ruffle his bristly hair, clasp his downy neck, hug his small, lithe, warm body tight against me.”

And even still, with death on the march, staying away from our child seemed a small price to pay. Massachusetts, with its technocratic embrace, and the governor’s careful, four-phase reopening plan, was spared the worst of the summer terror. On the coasts we had been chastened — something about refrigerator trucks parked outside your local hospital engenders docile compliance. Hardly anyone I know ventured out of the state this summer.

But the rest of the country, where millions of people were facing financial ruin long before the virus shuttered the economy, chafed under government restrictions. In May much of the country “opened up for business” — a misleadingly rosy phrase. Many experts had warned that the spike in infections would follow three weeks later. Insidiously, they didn’t. Because some people, rightly scared, stayed home, or maintained their own sense of social distance, transmission occurred slowly and stealthily, until more cities and more states decided to follow Georgia’s and Indiana’s lead, and drop any pretense of public health measures, even as caseloads were rising.

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The reckoning came not in three weeks, as predicted, but in late June, nearly two months after Georgians had started streaming back into hair salons and Indianans had gone back to their gym routines. Spotty and insufficient testing had failed to identify the rising rates of infection. Instead, the people in the smaller towns and cities of America, already afflicted by opioids and obesity and unemployment, discovered this new crisis from the wail of sirens streaming into underfunded, unprepared hospitals. Now, with the approach of Labor Day, people on the coasts are shopping for school supplies while the middle of the country grapples with their strictest lockdowns yet. We’ll see how long our schools stay open before they have to close again.

At least the rising mortality rates throughout the South and Midwest have doused the brushfires of ignorance that had threatened, back in the spring, to join into one large conflagration of Flat Earth, anti-Vaxxing, conspiracy-minded idiocy. Georgians are now collecting petitions to recall their governor, and the website FiveThirtyEight has Trump — who had spent the months of May and June stoking his base and declaring victory over the virus — underwater to Biden in all the swing states.

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Finally, now, caseloads are falling in every state across the nation. Vaccines are entering the final phase of clinical trials — a blazing pace. Remdesivir has become more widely available, and it may have saved thousands of lives when it was rushed to hospitals in the grip of their localized surges. Unemployment is still as high as any time since the Great Depression, but economists think we’ve finally found bottom. Meanwhile, the stock market rose on the news of sustained growth in China, and the passage of a bill creating thousands of national service jobs by a grudging Senate majority worried about a historic defeat in the November elections.

It’s almost enough to make someone on their favorite beach, on a sunny, late summer day, optimistic. The waves will keep coming, but at least this time we’re prepared.

Jeff Howe is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern. Follow him on Twitter @crowdsourcing.