A letter to future historians about COVID-19

Shannon Keyser

Dear Future Historian,

If, for some reason, you are searching for evidence of what it was like for the average person during the COVID-19 lockdown and you have stumbled across this article, let me tell you some things that will make your job a little easier.

The big one is that there is no public opinion on what is going on.

“But there has to be a public opinion!”

Does there? What is public opinion? My understanding is that it’s how the public generally feels at the time. And from what I have seen, among us “commoners,” there have been no unified sentiments. There’s just a lot of confusion, and everyone has different opinions and feelings for what’s going on, and those opinions are constantly shifting and changing.

I tried to sum up public opinion when I first started writing this article, but I found I couldn’t. Everyone is having a different experience right now. Oh, I could list statistics like every other article is doing. But what does that mean? You, historian, will have records on that. What’s harder for you to know is how people feel and the atmosphere.

I suppose I’ll say my experience and feelings to start. I’m a senior in high school right now. I left for spring break and never returned. I don’t get to take all of these major tests I was preparing for, or if I can, they look very different. We can’t really say good-bye to our friends and teachers properly. We don’t get to participate in the things generations of students before us have gotten to do. In fact, I should be graduating the evening of the day I’m writing this. There are so many things that I was hoping to do “one last time” that will never happen. Last year was my last time to do them, without me having any idea.

Please don’t try to list all of the ways this could be good for us. It makes me feel worse, and I’ve already thought about a lot of it. I will say my hope is that all of this toughens up our generation and makes us appreciate things more. We’ll see if that happens.

I feel a lot of frustration and anger at authorities while also feeling guilty for being upset at them. I don’t think I would know what to do if I were in charge right now.

Here’s my question for everyone in charge of instituting this lockdown: do you understand what you are doing to your people? You had to have heard about the record job losses, right? And about the huge increases in domestic violence, suicide rates, and general depression? You know that people’s health is suffering as well because hospitals aren’t allowed to do “non-essential treatment,” which means important surgeries are being postponed, including thousands of people unable to get cancer treatments?

I hope everyone in charge understands that every day they extend the shutdown, these things get worse.

Honestly, I don’t think this lockdown would have happened if we didn’t have all of the technology we do now. People wouldn’t go for the idea of being stuck in their houses for weeks and months. It makes me wonder how necessary the shutdown is. After all, this certainly isn’t the only deadly outbreak that we’ve had in history, and we’ve managed to get through to the other side without shutting everything down to this level.

But then if I didn’t have things shut down, what would I suggest instead? And I don’t know. Do masks actually help? Some people act like masks are the perfect solution. But I’ve heard others say they don’t help too much and can even lead to other respiratory problems. Protect the nursing homes in particular, but how? I don’t know how to do any of this.

I don’t want people to die. I would feel terrible if I actually got someone sick. We need to protect the vulnerable subset of our population. But how can we do that while proceeding as normally as possible? It makes me want to leave it to the “experts.”

But can I trust the people in charge and “experts”? Historian, I don’t know what it looks like from your vantage point, but this has become highly politicized. There once was a time where a mass crisis would bring people together, but instead, it’s become divisive.

You think hydroxychloroquine could be a useful treatment? You are a Republican and want everyone to die! Are you wearing a mask? You are a Democrat who is trying to spread fear! Skeptical of shutdown measures? Republican murderer! And on and on it goes.

Historian, these are just a few thoughts that I’ve had, and I know other people have more. I’m very fortunate to have been impacted minimally, but others have lost their jobs or are infected. If these are just my thoughts, as jumbled as they are, you can imagine how others are feeling. I don’t think it’s possible for you to capture or understand how we feel, not through any fault of yours, but because it’s just so complicated.

Personally, I think most of the measures taken are too extreme. “Flattening the curve” was supposed to be about minimizing the number of people in hospitals, but most hospitals here in the US haven’t been overcrowded. In fact, they’ve been having to furlough people. They talk about “herd immunity,” but you can’t develop that without going out and interacting with people.

But even coming to that conclusion is tough, trying to navigate through everything and figure out what is true, weighing the options to figure out what would be best in the long run. This is just my conclusion, and I know other people have come to their own. It’s hard to know what is a good decision and what is a bad one.

A phrase tossed about is that we are in a “time of uncertainty.” I abhor phrases like that. They rub me the wrong way. However, I will grudgingly admit that it fits, but not in the way I think people mean. When people use it, they usually mean being uncertain about the future. I think a more pertinent way to look at it right now is that people are uncertain about their feelings.

There is no public opinion, historian. The average person alone feels a wide range of conflicting emotions, and I don’t think there is a way you could make a blanket statement about everyone. But I guess if you had to say one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that everyone wants this pandemic to be over and things to return to normal.