Brian Mittge Commentary: One Year Later, What Does Our Story Tell?


I went through a phase in middle school when I ravenously read what is called “apocalyptic fiction.” I couldn’t get enough stories about individuals and society after a nuclear war, or a global plague, or massive natural disasters.

That sounds pretty dark, but I was just fascinated with the idea of survival, of societal adaptation, of the specifics of how people could endure and overcome the unimaginable.

I’ve been thinking about our shared story of plague, as this week we mark one year since the COVID-19 pandemic really hit home and stay-home orders began.

What have we learned from this pandemic?

I’d like to think we’ve become a little more prepared for disruption to our systems of sustaining ourselves.

One year ago, many Americans saw empty store shelves for the first time in our lives. It started with toilet paper, but soon there was no bread, no flour, no meat. It was shocking.

Many of us took gardening more seriously as a response. In our house, we went from pantries with enough food for this week, to stocking our shelves with a month’s worth of food or more.

Rural folks have always known that we need to be prepared for the power to go out and to be self-sufficient for a few days or more. The pandemic emphasized the need to be ready for anything.

With schools shut down, parents had to become more involved with our kids’ education. It was hard. It’s still hard as our kids go to school in person two days a week, and we try to ensure that they still learn something worthwhile on the other three “asynchronous days.”

In our household we made cooking evening meals into part of the school curriculum. We forced our kids to memorize poetry. I give them a globe and blank maps of various continents, and tell them to fill in the countries. If we’re stuck at home, I’m bound and determined that we’re going to come out smarter.

What kind of lessons our families take from this pandemic is one thing. I wonder what our shared American story is and will be.

We all remember the confusion and the fear in the early days of the pandemic. In this space a year ago, I said that this could be our “Sept. 12” moment, a time when we rallied together with the spirit of solidarity that all Americans felt after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Sadly, it’s hard to say that we kept up a Sept. 12 feeling for long, if at all.

Part of that reason, I suppose, was that we were in the middle of a divisive presidential contest.

Early confusion about how the virus was spread also led to enduring suspicions.

It broke my heart then (and still grieves me today) that so many people were taken in by vast conspiracies about the virus. The shrapnel from that hostile nonsense (remember that ridiculous talk about a “plandemic”) continues to injure us today.

This global outbreak was relatively mild as far as deadly diseases go, with a death rate that is about 10 times worse than the flu. In a year it has killed 500,000 Americans, 5,000 Washingtonians and 50 citizens of Lewis County. As bad as that is, it could have been much worse. The next virus could be much more deadly. What I’ve seen from our response to this disease doesn’t fill me with optimism that we would respond any better.

There are still some people who refuse to mask up, even though science and common sense have clearly shown that even basic cloth masks help minimize the tiny moisture particles in our breath that are like little balloons carrying the virus.

I’ve given up hoping that hard-core vaccine skeptics will line up for a shot, even though widespread immunizations would be the closest thing we have to a silver bullet to really put this thing behind us.

I’m simply grateful that the vaccine supply is finally reaching a point where my most vulnerable loved ones can get a vaccine to teach their cells how to ward off COVID-19. If other folks want to deny themselves a chance to prime their immune system to fight this virus, that’s a battle that’s beyond my desire and ability to wage.

It’s been hard for us as Americans to come together. This is an age where a smirking lie carries the same weight online as well-researched fact. It’s a time when our politicians take advantage of our suspicions instead of calling on us to follow our better angels.

Still, I believe that this pandemic has taught us that we do share more than we usually realize.

The very air we breathe has carried contagion among us. But every time I see my neighbors in a mask at a store, I know that we can come together to protect one another.

When I see volunteers showing up at the fairgrounds to put on a drive-by vaccination clinic for our most vulnerable citizens, I see that we still believe in helping each other.

When our scientists can create a safe, reliable vaccine for a brand new virus in just a year’s time, I know that a can-do spirit will still help us overcome obstacles.

The after-the-end-of-the-world stories I read as a child were fiction. The last year we’ve experienced has seemed like a dream. But the reality is that we are in the middle of a story that is stranger and grander than any book.

And unlike fiction, this adventure requires us to never flinch from reality, no matter how much we would like to replace it with elaborate conspiratorial fantasies.

We can’t anticipate all the plot twists, and this American tale never really ends, but we all can take up our pens and write this next chapter together.


Brian Mittge lives in rural Chehalis and was a Chronicle journalist for a dozen years. Contact him at