COVID’s Heartbreak Half Mile: What Lessons to Take Into 2021?

by Sarah Stuteville

A decade ago, I went through a brief period of long-distance running. During that time, I was introduced to the idea that, no matter the length of the run, it will be the last half mile that nearly kills you. My father, a man who has made a personal study of physical endurance in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, often refers to this phenomenon as the “heartbreak half mile.” It is when we see the light at the end of a challenge that we start to fully experience the cost of the miles behind us, exponentially compounding the effort ahead. The last stretch may be short, but it is intense as hell and is often where we most squarely face ourselves.

It is clear to me that we are now in COVID’s “heartbreak half mile.” In the last few weeks, we’ve seen two vaccines approved for use by the FDA, politicians have publicly received the first round of the vaccine, and local essential workers have started getting their inoculations as well. 

But alongside these signs of a “beginning of the end,” the pandemic rages. New infections are higher than ever, hospitals overflow, new virulent strains creep across borders, and we face the darkest and loneliest holiday season in collective memory.

All the while, the systems that were supposed to protect us (or that white people thought were supposed to protect us) continue to peddle their paltry comfort, now in the form of $600 stimulus checks, a gesture I saw one person online describe as the government equivalent of (and I paraphrase) “that scene in a movie where a rich man throws change on the ground just to watch poor people scramble for it.” 

But there’s something far worse than the continued insulting political response to this ongoing crisis: our willingness to turn on each other. Online, people scream in turn about “face diapers” and “superspreading murderers.” I’ve now seen multiple memes suggesting that people who “eat fast food” and are suspicious of the COVID vaccines are “ignorant hypocrites” who either deserve to die in this pandemic or be blamed for the deaths of others. This is an all-too-familiar narrative that, instead of blaming the oppressive, incompetent systems that are actually accountable for the deaths of over 300,000 people in the United States in these last 10 months, turns its ire on the poor and communities of color — both groups who have very real reasons not to trust a government vaccine, given long histories of racist and classist medical experimentation.  

Cal Anderson Park sweep, Friday, December 18, 2020 (photo: Jordan Somers)

I witnessed this deep training — of blaming the victims of crisis instead of the powerful systems that create crisis — at work with the destruction of the homeless encampment at Cal Anderson Park last week. Two days after the “sweep,” I went with my family to see what was left of the winter shelters people were able to build for themselves during the peak of a pandemic that has cost so many their livelihoods. There was cold mud imprinted with the cleanup crew’s tire tracks. There was a soccer game. There was a posted “Local Resource List” naming already full-to-capacity shelters. And there was a corporate news crew, looking to interview families who were supposed to be “relieved” by the “cleanup.” All they found was me and my family, plus a couple of pickup soccer games. 

The result was a predictable piece of poverty-shaming where people with housing were pitted against people without housing (though of course none of those people in the latter category were interviewed). I also got a three-second mention as the obligatory dissenting opinion, but it really isn’t worth the watch because it did nothing to reveal the most important truth — that we have somehow, yet again, found a way to blame the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. These systems don’t even have to work to divide anymore; we’re all too eager to do it ourselves.

Of course, this year has also seen incredible moments of collective power and transcendence. There have been protests where people risked their very lives to stand against racist violence and oppression. There was an election where working-class people and Black communities, despite immense voter suppression, also risked their lives to ensure that the nihilistic death cult that is the Trump Administration will leave office in a few weeks. 

A protestor at the Cal Anderson Park sweep (photo: Jordan Somers)

Less publicly, there are examples of these systems of care everywhere. There are the people I passed on Beacon Hill yesterday with their signs for “free food” and the protestors who were arrested last Thursday as they tried to protect the homeless encampment against destruction. And there are the infinite ways that people were decent to themselves and each other under immense pressure every damned day of this pandemic.

This last year has been a deeper hell than I could ever have imagined. When I look back on the first pandemic column I wrote for the Emerald, (my “first mile” of the marathon, to return to our metaphor) I am stunned by my optimism. I imagined this would be a difficult couple of months and was horrified at the prospect of thousands of people dying. I could not, at that time, have conceived of the grief and rage I would live alongside seven months later. I would not have believed that I — that all of us — could go on so long in the underwater world of accumulating, unprocessed trauma, while also feeling so heart-poundingly lucky to just still be alive. I say all of this as a way of emphasizing that however we got through the marathon to this point is a miracle. But let’s not lose sight of the possibility that we can do more than just survive. Especially in these last gut-wrenching months, maybe we can also teach ourselves a better way of living.

Because relief is coming. The light on the other side grows stronger, even as we stagger, bloodied, towards it. A vaccine, a new administration, a new year, and hell — if you’re into it — even a new astrological era.

The hardest times are probably still ahead. Especially because, as a mental health professional, I know the fallout of trauma can be far more difficult than the surviving of it. But it is what we do now, in this final push towards the finish line, that will define what is to come. Let it be that we reach for each other instead of pushing each other away. And that we remember now and forever what 2020 really taught us — in its own brutal way: that we are only as strong as the person standing next to us. That in the end, that person standing next to us is all we really have. And that whoever that person is, our salvation depends on each other. 

Sarah Stuteville is a writer, memoirist, educator, and nonprofit media consultant currently pursuing a master’s degree in mental health counseling at Seattle University. She taught journalism and media production at the University of Washington. Feminism, journalism, motherhood, relationships, and mental health are subjects of Sarah’s writings. Sarah has reported from over a dozen countries in the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and the former Soviet Union. She wrote a social justice issue column for the Seattle Times. Her memoir writing has been published in Mutha where her piece “No One Is Watching” was one of the most read on the site all year.  Her piece “Windstorm” won “Honorable Mention” in the Hunger Mountain Nonfiction Writing Contest; “A Girl’s History of Consent” was a finalist in the New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Awards. She also helped to co-found The Seattle Globalist, a nonprofit journalism organization that trains diverse media makers.

Featured image by Jordan Somers

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