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Hope and darkness during a pandemic

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The last day of November means it is time to update my pandemic diary. The past nine months have generated a welter of themes. To recap:

March 2020: fear and anger.

April 2020: anger and loathing.

May 2020: frustration and caprice.

June 2020: sheer exhaustion.

July 2020: fatalism and vertigo.

August 2020: interdependence and stasis.

September 2020: anger and atonement.

October 2020: depression and isolation.

November is about the dizzying highs and lows that the past 30 days have produced.

On the one hand, November was witness to the two best possible pieces of news for those of us who thought this pandemic would never end. Pfizer and Moderna announced wildly successful preliminary results from their Stage III trials (an AstraZeneca vaccine may also be available soon, although that one looks more uncertain). Pfizer requested emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its vaccine. For the first time since the pandemic began, it is possible to envisage an end to it.

After the fits and starts of October, this is very welcome news. It is one thing to simply endure a new normal without any sense of how or when it will end. It is another thing entirely to think that staying safe for just six more months may make it possible to go to restaurants and theaters and to see friends, without having to wear a mask.

Another uncertainty that has cleared up is that after Jan. 20, Donald Trump will not be the president of the United States. This is good for multiple reasons, the most obvious of which is that the Trump administration will not be shouldering the primary responsibility for the large-scale distribution of any vaccine. Given its bungling of every other nonfinancial facet of this pandemic, this is a welcome relief.

The announcement of successful vaccine trials during the transition also should lessen partisan resistance to taking it. Trump supporters can credit the president, while Trump opponents no longer think that any announcement is designed to boost Trump's reelection chances. My hunch was that the previous polling showing vaccine skepticism was overstated, and more recent polling backs this up.

In other words, the country's trajectory to escape the strictures of the pandemic look much brighter than they did a month ago. That said, the days are getting shorter, the darkness is lasting longer, and I no longer completely understand the behavior of my fellow man.

We always knew that the pandemic would worsen in the Northern Hemisphere as the weather got colder and more people had to do more activities indoors. Nonetheless, the figures are frightening. The numbers of infected have skyrocketed in my state, in the United States, and in Europe as well. Hospitals are filled to capacity.

More disturbing are reports from hospitals about the degree of denial among patients with COVID-19. One South Dakota nurse told CNN that "I think the hardest thing to watch is that people are still looking for something else and a magic answer and they do not want to believe COVID is real. . . . Their last dying words are, 'This can't be happening. It's not real,' " One Appalachian hospital nurse told NBC News's Dasha Burns that some patients come in already in severe distress but "when they test positive, they blame the hospital for giving it to them."

All of this was clear before the Thanksgiving holiday and the related travel, which will guarantee further community spread. Two weeks from now, the numbers will be worse. And by the end of the year, they will be worse still. The current moment is akin to the still space of time between knowing a car accident is about to happen, and then the actual collision.

For the first time since March, I dread the risks of even routine tasks such as shopping for groceries, I have contemplated stocking our cellar sufficiently to ride out the winter until the vaccines become more widely available.

The most frustrating period of this pandemic is yet to come. We are close enough to the end to see it, but after nine months of altered daily life, the fatigue and frustration are just as dangerous as the virus itself. Those feelings are real, but so is the daylight at the end of this tunnel. The problem is that Trump administration officials have been engaged in so much happy talk over the past few months about "rounding the turn" that any messaging about buckling down for a few more months will not have the needed impact. Unfortunately, the failure of public leadership affects coronavirus deniers and everyone else the same way. Individual acts of weariness and stubbornness guarantee that all Americans will have to endure more months of hardship.

I hope that my fellow Americans can marshal their fortitude for one last act of restraint before the spring thaw and a return to normalcy. The fog of depression surrounding me last month has dissipated. I have seen too much in 2020, however, not to fear the worst-case scenario.

Daniel W. Drezner wrote this piece for The Washington Post.

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