Feature

What day is the real anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Biden's first primetime address highlights the challenge of memorializing a slow-rolling catastrophe

On Thursday, President Biden will deliver his first primetime address to the nation, marking the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But why Thursday?

November 17, 2020 could have also worked as an anniversary: That would have been one year since health officials in China detected the first-known case of COVID-19 in Hubei. Or maybe January 21, 2021, which was one year since the CDC recorded the first case in the United States. Jan. 31 is yet another milestone; it's when the World Health Organization declared a Global Health Emergency. But then what about Feb. 3, the date of the first U.S. death?

Biden instead is choosing to pin the anniversary to March 11, the one-year anniversary of the WHO declaring COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. But the slipperiness of the date just goes to show how difficult it is to concentrate the experiences of the past year into a single day, when every day has felt historic.

History, as we traditionally view it, is a chronology of catalytic events: The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Reichstag Fire, Pearl Harbor, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. But COVID-19 unfolded at different paces for everyone: Your memory of the start of the pandemic differs if you live in China or Italy, much less New York City or Fargo, North Dakota. What's especially particular about COVID-19 is how personal the anniversaries can be: maybe you consider the first day of lockdown to be the "real" anniversary — or the last time you ate out, or saw your friends in person, or when your loved one got sick.

Figuring out how to memorialize the pandemic, and the nearly incomprehensible loss of life, is not just a symbolic task though. Having something — a physical memorial, or a significant date — that people can concentrate on is an important part of healing and, eventually, moving on from the trauma.

It's a sad testament to the all-encompassing pervasiveness of the pandemic, which has touched nearly every facet of our lives, that there's no obvious date to focus on, because every date, every development, and every death has been significant. That might be part of Biden's intention, then, in selecting March 11. His administration has shown a keen awareness of the government's role in helping citizens process the trauma, and giving people a date to center their attention on keeps the pandemic from becoming an even more amorphous tragedy.

Despite Biden's efforts, though, decades from now we very well may look back at the entirety of 2020 as one big, grim anniversary. It might not be a bad thing: taking 2020 as a whole speaks to the relentlessness of the pandemic, and might be the closest we can come to capturing it. March 11 is only a day, in a series of interchangeably dramatic days. But for the past year — or more, or a little less — COVID-19 has been our life.

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