One day, years in the future, when our names are forgotten, and our bodies are dust, people will remember today.
When future school children sit at desks, reading about the Great Pandemic of 2020, this Tuesday will be cited in their textbooks. And I, for one, really hope these kids will be forced to grudgingly memorize today’s date the same way we had to memorize stuff like: October 12, 1492; November 11, 1620; and the Pythagorean Theorem.
Because history was made this morning.
It happened in England, when an elderly Irish woman in a wheelchair was wheeled down University Hospital Coventry’s corridor. The hallway was lined with medical staffers, nurses, doctors, custodians, workers, journalists, and photographers who applauded her with uproarious cheers. And there were tears. Many, many tears.
The old woman’s name is Margaret Keenan, she will be 91 next week. She has red hair, a cherub face, happy eyes, a slight build, and she wore a Christmas sweatshirt with a cheerful penguin cartoon on it. Margaret smiled so big that her grin knocked photographers backward and jolted major planets out of their periodic elliptical orbits. And she has reason to beam.
Because at 6:31 a.m., December 8, 2020, Margaret became the first woman in the Western world to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
As of this morning, the U.K. became the first Western country to start a mass coronavirus vaccination program. Health officials are calling this day “V-Day.”
Like I said. Tears.
To say that people in Britain are excited about this is like saying the Beatles were guitar owners. People have taken to spray-painting “victory” on the city walls. And the happy tears aren’t just in Britain, either, but all over Earth. In fact, one of these weepy fools happens to be seated behind my keyboard right now.
And I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. Medical director for the National Health Service in England, Stephen Powis, had a few heartfelt sentiments to add to this monumental occasion—give me a moment while I remove my reading glasses and dab my bloodshot eyes.
Powis said, “This really feels like the beginning of the end.”
I can’t even find the words to describe how I feel reading that. And believe me, I’ve read that sentence about 1,398 times already, just to make sure I read it correctly.
I am an ordinary Joe Six-Pack. I have no idea what happens now in the global immunization effort, nor what kinds of scientific obstacles medical workers will face. I don’t know squat about the vaccine, and I don’t know about the politics involved. What I know is this: “the beginning of the end.”
Right now as I write to you, there have been 1.07 million COVID-19 cases in my home state of Florida; 284,000 deaths in the United States; and 1.55 million deaths worldwide. But numerical figures tell nothing of the miserable, sunless year our tired world has known.
Do you realize what the last nine months have done to our psyche? Childhood has been dampened worldwide. Mass isolations have torn the fabric of our collective mental health. The basic human act of making new friends is nearly a myth.
When was the last time you went to a party? How about a concert? Not to mention that we’ve lost age old social norms, including the disappearance of shaking hands, hugs, and communal queso dip bowls.
And what about the uptick in cases of clinical depression and anxiety? Depressive disorders in America tripled this year. Alcohol sales have increased 262 percent—that can’t be good. Drug addiction is on the rise. Suicides are happening all over the place.
The 19-year-old waitress who died in a hospital after a suicide attempt because social isolation and loneliness had become too much.
Or the 36-year-old Bangladeshi man who killed himself because people in his village believed he was infected with COVID-19 when he came down with a fever. His postmortem COVID test came back negative.
The young man in Illinois who thought his girlfriend had been infected with coronavirus, so he shot her before killing himself. They, also, both tested negative.
Or the 66-year-old man with throat cancer who hanged himself in a New York hospital after testing positive for the coronavirus.
And may we never forget the beautiful 49-year-old head of New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital Emergency Department, Doctor Lorna Breen, who had no history of mental illness, but committed suicide shortly after telling friends and family about the horrors she saw while treating serious coronavirus patients.
The beginning of the end. That’s what he said.
So don’t tell me not to get excited about this groundbreaking occasion. Don’t tell me not to smile. Or feel good. Or cry. I can’t help it. Today marks the first day in five hundred months that I awoke to a front page bearing good news.
This morning I looked at the photograph of a grinning Irish grandmother, Margaret Keenan, whose bloodstream now contains a vaccine, and I felt something. Something profound. For the first time in a long time I felt like the old me.
Margaret herself said it better than anyone else could:
“I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against COVID-19. It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family… After being on my own for most of the year.”
It’s been a long, dark year. But hold on, we’re getting there.