COVID-19, 25 years later, a Thanksgiving story

Photo by Pro Church Media | Upsplash

SCENE:  It’s 2045, about 30 or 40 people have gathered at a downtown Phoenix cafe for a night of storytelling. The theme for the evening is Thanksgiving Memories. The emcee introduces local storyteller and playwright, James E. Garcia.

EMCEE: Next up, everyone, is James E. Garcia, whose decades-long writing career has included journalism, playwriting, a little bit of acting, and, yes, some occasional storytelling. Here he is with his memories of Thanksgiving Day, 2020. Please welcome James Garcia.

[audience applauds]

JAMES: Thank you so much. And thanks for coming out tonight. You’ve been a great audience.

[after a pause]

My story isn’t one I thought I’d live to tell.

For those of you old enough to remember, and some of you here tonight may only know about this from your history books or listening to your parents or grandparents’ accounts, it’s been 25 years since the COVID-19 Pandemic that ultimately killed millions of people around the world.

I know, that’s not the most heartwarming way to start a story about Thanksgiving. Then again, my story is about Thanksgiving Day 2020.

I was one of the lucky ones. By Thanksgiving Day of that year some 260,000 people, 260,000 souls, 260,000 men, women and children, weren’t so lucky. And before it was all over many tens of thousands more would be gone as well.

I was one of the lucky ones.

Not so lucky was the woman in El Paso who lost six members of her family over the course of about 10 days.

I remember watching her tell her story on the morning news. She seemed to be in a daze. “My mother, my father, my aunt, my cousin, my other aunt, my uncle. They were all being very careful,” she said.

What she meant was that they were all being careful not to breathe, not to breathe other people’s air, other people’s germs.

That’s not an easy thing to do. So to keep from catching COVID-19, some of us, many of us, not all of us, took to wearing surgical masks, especially if we were out and about. You know, the kind of masks you see doctors and nurses wear at the hospital.

We wore the masks because as incredible as it may sound we really had no other way of stopping the spread of the virus. 

The U.S. had 5,800 nuclear warheads at the time. We had computers. We had smartphones. We could transplant human organs and clone  sheep. We could send rockets into space and have them land on asteroids.

We also had about 400 million guns. In fact, there were more guns in the country than people at the time. And just for good measure, Americans bought 20 million more guns by the end of that year.

Why so many guns? It’s not like we were at war. Well, not exactly. But suffice it to say that Americans weren’t getting along so well at the time, which really had nothing to do with the coronavirus, except that some people did think wearing a mask meant you were a socialist or that you might even be running a secret pedophile sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza shop.

On a more serious note, the origins of our discontent, as someone once described it, which led that year to mass protest marches against racial injustice, had more to do with an infection of an entirely different sort. An infection of the soul. An infection that mis-defined the worth of a human being, and still does, largely based on the color of a person’s skin or their ethnicity or religion. In other words, viruses we can eradicate or learn to control, but some infections can never be cured. 

As far as the pandemic was concerned, on that Thanksgiving Day all we had to protect ourselves against an invisible, microscopic virus that almost no one in the country had heard of nine months earlier were these flimsy little cotton masks. Frankly, it was our only real defense. That and staying the hell away from other people, even the people you loved, and sometimes especially the people you loved. That is, if you wanted them to stay alive. 

On that Thanksgiving Day about 2,000 Americans were killed by the virus and tens of thousands more would be dead by Christmas. 

The release of a vaccine was just weeks away. But it would take months to vaccinate the entire country, and longer than that to vaccinate the world’s nearly 8 billion inhabitants. So even with the vaccine rolling out, and even with our trusty masks, the U.S. death toll from the virus was predicted to reach more than 400,000 by the  spring of 2021, a number almost equivalent to the U.S. troops who died in World War II.

In a way, World War III had arrived. But despite our massive arsenals, our 5,800 nuclear weapons, our 400 million guns, we were practically defenseless. Sometimes, I suppose, we fight the wrong wars.

So, on Thanksgiving Day 2020, knowing what was yet to unfold all around us, in every corner of the country, in every nation in the world, it wasn’t easy to give thanks. 

And, still, some of us did. 

Those of us who were the lucky ones.

Thank you. Have a great evening.

[Audience applauds]

Author’s note: Stay safe, wear a mask. Be thankful you’re alive. Be kind to those who haven’t been so lucky.

James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona, which covers Latino news statewide, and the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.