Less than total recall

Why our brains want to forget the darkest days of the pandemic

A healthcare worker
(Image credit: Bymuratdeniz / Getty Images)

Donald Trump is trying out a bold new slogan on the campaign trail: Are you better off than you were four years ago? His hope is that voters will look back on the final year of his presidency and remember halcyon days when the economy was booming, the streets were safe, and Americans were happy. Such memories would, of course, be utterly divorced from the reality of spring 2020. As the first Covid wave swept across the country, businesses shuttered en masse, with the U.S. shedding some 22 million jobs that March and April. Meanwhile, the weekly Covid death rate surged ever higher — from dozens to hundreds to thousands — despite then–President Trump's assurances that the country had "tremendous control" over the coronavirus and that "we're winning it." 

When I cast my mind back four years, two memories leap out. The first is the 24/7 wail of sirens in my old Brooklyn neighborhood, as ambulances ferried a seemingly endless line of Covid patients to overloaded hospitals. The second, more arbitrary recollection, is of the evening when I looked around my cramped apartment and suddenly realized it was filled with desks. With New York City shut down, both my wife and I now had to work from home, which also doubled as a Zoom classroom for my 7- and 4-year-olds. Other memories seep through: crossing the street to avoid a passerby and possible pathogen-bearer, the chained and padlocked gate of the local playground, my wife stitching together cloth masks from old T-shirts. But as a whole, those early months of the pandemic seem like a blur. That's a natural response to a traumatic event — our brains often bury or scrub painful memories that could come back to hurt us — and I'm sure millions of Americans have the same fog. But if this election is going to be a referendum on whether we were genuinely better off four years ago, then we can't forget the painful reality of 2020. 

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