Guest Post: On coronavirus from a 9/11 veteran — the best and worst to come

''Yes, the horror and loss will deepen ... But so, too, will our love and care for complete strangers.'

Author Wendy Howell says,
Author Wendy Howell says, "the horror and loss will deepen, will be ever-present, will settle in our bones. But so, too, will our love and care for complete strangers, and our understanding of and connection to what community really means." (Photo Credit: baramee2554 from Getty Images Pro via Canva)

I was living in NYC on 9/11, and I still remember, viscerally, the terror of that day. I also remember the depth of the horror in the days that followed- the continued smoldering, the photos of missing people staring at us from every surface, the military lockdown of the city, and the frantic scramble to connect with loved ones to make sure they were okay.

This pandemic feels like it will be worse. More people will die by the end, for one thing. And, unlike 9/11, when we had just hours of wondering if the crisis was over and if we were safe, in this case we will all likely be anxiously questioning for weeks what the next day might bring.

I feel like right now in America we are in that moment after the first plane hit — when few of us believed that what was going on was as serious as it actually was. I remember all too well my own journey when I heard on the radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Center: first thinking surely a small plane had somehow just lost control, then beginning to be more alarmed after seeing pictures and realizing that it was no small plane, and then finally hearing the announcement that the second plane had hit, and being shocked into facing full on the terrible reality that this was in fact an incomprehensibly devastating disaster.

Our second plane (and third and fourth) are coming in this pandemic, friends. None of us living have seen a worldwide outbreak of this gravity in our lifetimes. Experts tell us that likely 40-70% of people globally will be infected by the end, and with the mortality rate of this disease, that means thousands more will die. We also know this because thousands already have in other countries, and because there is no cure or vaccine.

The coming weeks will certainly try us as cities and towns, as states, as a nation, and as a world. But for any of us who were New Yorkers on 9/11, we also remember something else: how fiercely a community came together. Even in the city where it’s long been a cardinal sin to so much as acknowledge strangers on the street, our primal, human connection in the face of horror united us more deeply than I’ve ever seen anywhere, before or since.

I remember, in the days after 9/11, New Yorkers I didn’t know looking me in the eye as I was walking down the block, and asking me if I was okay- not just once, but many times. I remember doing this myself, because it seemed important and right, though just a few days earlier I would have scoffed at the idea. I remember random strangers offering rides, food, grocery shopping, and whatever else was needed to those who couldn’t get around. I remember the massive crowd gathered outside Red Cross HQ, of people willing to wait hours just to hopefully do small things to help. And most of all I remember how a city, in those days that followed, seemed to unite across class, race, gender, political ideology, and all the other things with which we usually divide ourselves — because those things were suddenly rendered far less relevant than our basic humanity and the devastating, powerful experience we shared.

I’m starting to see those things start to happen again now. Already, in Denver and across the nation, informal collectives are starting to form of people who are bringing essentials like food, medicine, and yes, toilet paper, to those who are elderly, disabled, immuno-compromised, sick, or quarantined. Already, people are beginning to check on neighbors, friends, and family in ways they may rarely or never have done before. And already, with the global nature of this crisis, we are feeling more connection to those across the world also impacted by this virus — who among us was not moved by the images of healthcare workers on the front lines in Wuhan, or of Italians singing on their balconies?

So, I am here to tell you from experience that yes, the horror and loss will deepen, will be ever-present, will settle in our bones. But so, too, will our love and care for complete strangers, and our understanding of and connection to what community really means.

Much love to all of you, and may we truly come through this stronger and more connected than before.

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