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We won't make it through this Covid winter if we can't re-learn how to help each other

The election divided us. But we need to work with each other if we're going to get through this pandemic winter.
Image: A light falls to reveal falling flakes shaped like the COVID virus on a winter night; a single house is in the background.
This year, winter will feel different.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

There's a line in Shakespeare's "Richard III" that people tend to misinterpret. It has intermittently popped into my head throughout the pandemic. "Now is the winter of our discontent," Richard declares. As a standalone line, it's easy to read as a lament, a sad nod to the leeching darkness of winter and all the ills it brings.

In only a few days, a quarter-million people will have died in the United States since the pandemic began.

But the very next line counters that. The winter in question is "made glorious summer by this sun of York," Richard declares in a pun on the lineage of the newly crowned king, his brother Edward. The uneasiness of the country is coming to a close, he promises.

That proved to be a bit of a premature statement — the Wars of the Roses kept trudging on until Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. But it's worth considering: Will this winter be one that marks the end of our struggle against Covid-19?

Another new potential vaccine candidate looks promising, this time from Moderna. Phase 3 trials showed that it's 94.5 percent effective at preventing Covid-19, Moderna said in a call with reporters Monday morning. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who participated in the call, said the "results of this trial are truly striking." Maybe there's something waiting for us on the other side of all this, after all.

But first we have to get through the next few months. And most indications point toward Americans' being forced to go it alone. The expired protections doled out this year are unlikely to be renewed in Congress. Republicans looking to cement their hold on the Senate in two critical elections in Georgia are weighing their options: approve a monumental spending bill just before four years of attacking President Joe Biden for being a tax-and-spend liberal socialist, or let their constituents suffer as jobs shutter and loved ones die? Tough call, really.

We are not ready for this winter. It's a fact that hasn't left my mind as coronavirus case numbers jumped by another million in the United States in the course of just a week. Whatever awaits us on the other side, we're not ready. We haven't come to grips with any of what has happened to us so far in this forever year, meaning we can't possibly be braced for what's still to come. And with the holidays approaching, the need for some feeling of normalcy in the coming days is preparing to make this Christmas unbearable for millions.

The death toll had gotten large enough to verge on the abstract — at 100,000 we mourned; at 200,000 there was more of a collective shrug.

It has been intense watching the numbers climb from here in New York City. It gets dark early this time of year on the far edge of the East Coast. It makes the nights long, and this year, it leaves you feeling anxious, knowing the promise of another lockdown is looming. Our feelings, our living spaces, our — everything, all of it coiled into itself as you wait for the next day's light, begging to either snap or explode, anything to release all of this relentless, grinding compression. The potentials — will I die, will my friends die, will I be the one to cause someone else to die, what about my job, is my family safe, will the people down the street be OK, will we be OK, what if we're not OK — threaten to become kinetic and explode.

The tiny apartment where my fiancée and I live is enough off the beaten path that we didn't hear the constant wail of ambulance sirens that some of our friends were subjected to in the spring. Maybe that's part of why there's less fear of the virus in the broader, more spread-out hinterlands of our country that have taken the brunt of this wave: You can't hear your neighbors dying around you.

In only a few days, a quarter-million people will have died in the United States since the pandemic began. The death toll had gotten large enough to verge on the abstract — at 100,000 we mourned; at 200,000 there was more of a collective shrug. By that point, the pace had slowed to a comparative crawl, taking four whole months instead of two. With the count about to hit 250,000, it somehow feels like a more profound marker, as we cruised past what were once the worst-case scenarios. One model projects that we may see half a million deaths before the pandemic's anniversary, a doubling over the course of this winter.

In all the uncertainty, we do know one thing: 2020 is going to be a year measured in deaths. The mind reels trying to come to grips with it. Is it that surprising, then, that so many people aren't even bothering to try?

Rejecting fear of the coronavirus has become a clarion call for folks like Dr. Scott Atlas, the president's preferred quack these days. We can't be so afraid of the extremely contagious virus that we let it take over our lives, he and others like him preach, encouraging residents of states trying to contain the virus to "rise up." Their acolytes hear the message and post on Facebook about the meals they plan to make when the family travels to breathe the same air, unhindered by oppressive masks, and give thanks for all that this last year has brought them. Meanwhile, the bodies are piling up so rapidly in the understaffed hospitals in El Paso, Texas, that inmates are being tasked with working in the overflowing morgues.

What will it be like at some of those tables when, as science writer Ed Yong notes, the infections caused around the Thanksgiving spread turn into hospitalizations and deaths at Christmas? What will it be like this time next year, with so many seats sitting empty, not because of social distancing but because they'll never be filled again?

For the people who have been taking this pandemic seriously, the rising numbers feel like a flashback to scarier times. I can feel my stomach clench as I think about not knowing when will be the last time that I get to walk out of this apartment before the infection rate is too high again to risk it anymore. Our cruel reward for avoiding our own demise is loneliness and isolation.

In a bid to find some guidance about how to cope with the mental strain of the coming winter months, I reached out to the Minnesota Historical Society. My logic was that surely the prairie farmers of the 19th century would have some useful secrets to share to make it through a solitary winter. I wanted to learn: How did they manage to get through the winters when blizzards could cause 10- to 20-foot snowdrifts without totally losing it?

"The short answer to that is that they didn't always," Bill Convery, the director of research with the MNHS, told me in a phone call. He quickly added that even in the coldest snaps, though, the isolation wasn't total — horses could be hooked up to sleds to visit neighbors. Multigenerational families often lived together still, helping one another pass the time and stave off loneliness. Unfortunately, that may not be much help for millennials living alone or even as couples in a time when trips to visit friends could prove deadly.

It's like New York Magazine writer Sarah Jones said in a recent essay about her grandfather's death from complications of Covid-19. The vast majority of lives lost in the last eight months are from a "sacrificial category of person," as she put it, who have been designated to lay down their lives for the idea of a strong economy and the free market:

"What distinguishes a sacrifice from a regular death? Not ceremony, which is present in all funerals. The difference is intent. Sacrifice is deliberate: Someone makes an offering in return for a boon, such as a good harvest, a healthy baby, power, love. Sometimes the offering is only prayer or a voice raised in worship. Other times, it costs the supplicant a bit more. But the effort is supposed to be worth it. The idea is that if we appease the gods, or the invisible hand of the free market, we'll prosper."

I'm not exactly hopeful about what the universe will offer in kind for the sacrifices we've laid down before it. Its cold indifference matches what we've seen from our leaders and too many of our peers. It's going to be a long winter, one when the night is dark and full of terrors.

But I will say that my talk with Convery, the researcher with the Minnesota Historical Society, unexpectedly left me feeling a bit better than I had before. The call reminded me that we may be alone in our homes, but we can — and absolutely should — still reach out to and connect with the members of our communities, even if the digital is no substitute for the physical. In the harshest of years, Convery told me, neighbors would still be helping one another because "you can't do farming alone — it only works through the strength of communities."

"Even in a time when maybe your house was isolated, you were still trying to stay connected to, as best as you could, your community," Convery said. "Because that myth of individualism is in many ways a myth. We can't make it out there on our own, without the help of others."