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Echoes of 9/11 as we contend with COVID-19

By Peter Ciotta

On a bright, sunny, blue sky day, a tweet hit my feed announcing the World Health Organization had just declared the novel coronavirus outbreak an official pandemic.

Even though this is a first for my lifetime, upon reading this not unexpected news, I had this dull sense that we have somehow been here before. Constant headlines, updates, news conferences, announcements all focused on one all-consuming, truly viral topic. A continuous tally of those impacted and worse yet, those we’ve lost. Stories of responders and caregivers. Advisories on how to stay personally safe and warnings on what to watch for.

Despite similarities, I hesitate mightily to compare the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 with the historic tragedy that was 9/11. The terrorist airplane hijackings and subsequent attacks on New York City, the United States, our way of life, were raw and so viscerally personal. It feels disrespectful to compare anything to that loss of incomparable magnitude.

But, here we are. The world has been hit by something never seen before … and is being brought to a standstill. And like 9/11, we are being forced to come to terms with new realities. As we stand today, are quarantines and cancellations and work from home and online learning enough to achieve containment? And how long will this heightened state of uncertainty last? Like the early days of 9/11, questions were also unquantifiable, and answers similarly illusive.

Without question, the terrible events of 9/11 will forever stand apart in our national and personal histories. But some of the feelings unleashed that bright September day 19 years ago seem to be seeping to the surface in these early days of COVID-19 community spread. So, what’s ultimately the point of offering this comparison (which I fully realize some may vehemently disagree with)?

Along with the trauma of 9/11 – and the fear and anger that marked the days and weeks that followed – what I remember most are the words, decisions and actions of a few great leaders; and the courage, resilience and compassion of people everywhere.

And those leaders and other people, moved us forward. They took us from shock, through fear, to an eventual regaining of equilibrium, and ultimately, acclimation to new realities.

The lessons of 9/11 are so many. We would do well to recall them as we confront and eventually contain and move past COVID-19.

Peter Ciotta is communications director of Millennium Collaborative Care.

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