During this year—“this devastating year,” as Robin Marantz Henig writes in this issue—a man in Central Java assembled a barrier from bamboo poles, painted LOCKDOWN onto a piece of vinyl, and blocked the entrance to a village road. A Belgian undertaker began dressing for work in a hazmat suit. A child in Detroit complained of headache; a month later, during the memorial service that only 12 people were permitted to attend, her parents grieved behind face masks.
Here’s what the year has demanded we understand: that a single phenomenon connects these people, these places, this sorrow, this fear. Most of us are neither epidemiologists nor Spanish flu survivors; for most of us, before 2020 the word “pandemic” belonged to history, dystopian fiction, or books of warning from science journalists like Henig. The effort to comprehend, to grasp the new coronavirus as the actual global event it has become, is exhausting.
Trying to follow the science alone can overwhelm even the practiced observer, as Henig points out in one of this special issue’s examinations of the pandemic: “Even for a science geek like me, it has been unsettling to watch [scientists] debate, disagree, pivot, and reassess. I’ve been wishing instead that some lab-coated hero would just swoop in and make it go away.”