OP-ED: We need our moment of triumphant liberation from the traumas of COVID-19

Chris Jones
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
A platoon of British soldiers marches on May 8, 1945, along the Avenue des Champs-Elysees during a parade in Paris celebrating The Allies' Victory Over Nazi Germany and the third anniversary of American women in service. (AFP via Getty Images)

On Aug. 25, 1944, the Allied Forces rolled into Paris and the Nazi occupation of France was over. “When the last enemy resistance crumbled at the gate to Paris,” the Associated Press reported on that day, “then this heart of France went mad — wildly, violently mad with happiness.”

For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has been just as traumatic as a world war. And the hugely successful vaccines are the equivalent of the American tanks. So when do we celebrate our liberation? When are allowed to feel that same way as those giddy Parisians?

If you’ve seen the stunning French TV epic known as “A French Village” (worthy of comparison to “The Wire” in its multiyear excellence), you’ll know that endings are always muddy.

Long prior to the liberation, expedient leading French citizens who had embraced the morally bankrupt collaboration were quietly switching sides to the resistance. Or, in some cases, hedging their bets by suddenly working both sides at once. (It was the 1940s equivalent of deleting prior uncomfortable tweets; there has been plenty of that during the intensely politicized COVID-19 pontifications from politicians and media stars.)

Back then, even many of the more foresighted Nazis figured out they were going down in defeat well before the summer of 1944. That’s why so many of them got away.

A proper ending: Still, the need for an ending is baked into how we chronicle and understand history. You can see this in how we tell our stories. In the great movie “Ratatouille,” the rodent Remy cannot be said to have succeeded in proving that your background, or species, does not preclude you from being a great chef, until a demanding critic delivers the definitive verdict. Only then can the story end.

(This might well be the one unassailable purpose of critics.)

In the final episode of “The Queen’s Gambit,” Beth Harmon, the central chess-playing hero, has her definitive moment of triumph when she is invited to come and play by a bunch of old Russians who truly love the game. In this story, the purity of the street-wise acceptance they offer is Beth’s true victory since the Netflix show has just spent seven episodes detailing the moral corruption of the industrial-competitive complex that surrounds the celebrated game.

And, of course, politicians understand the advantages of declaring an ending, however artificial. On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush delivered his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. When fighting continued thereafter in Iraq, the move looked hubristic and even Bush himself later said having a banner with those words was a mistake. But the impulse was politically savvy: Bush and his aides were trying to get credit for an ending.

At some point before too long, the same imperative will present itself to the Biden administration, if discussions are not already underway.

The issue is, of course, complicated by the inevitable and confusing global rollout of the vaccines, which have resulted in wild unevenness in the percentage of persons vaccinated in rich countries as compared with poorer nations. How could a North American or European politician ethically declare victory over COVID-19, thanks to a mostly vaccinated population, when the virus has been allowed to rage on other continents?

The short answer? They cannot. But politicians aren’t the only people interested in grabbing on to endings.

Take, for example, the savvy producers of the Broadway show “Hadestown.”

Up until a few days ago, Broadway was reopening on Sept. 14, a date chosen by its three most powerful brand names of the moment: “Hamilton,” “Wicked” and “The Lion King.” Since it has been widely observed that New York won’t really feel like it has recovered until Broadway reopens, it seemed likely that the international media corps would select that Tuesday as the moment to declare the pandemic over, stateside, and New York officially reopen for business and fun.

And since New York is widely seen as a proxy for all of America, maybe the likely slew of live broadcasts and other excitement would be enough for Sept. 14, 2022, to become as good an end as any to this crisis. All of that, of course, would accrue very nicely to the bottom lines of those productions.

It’s certainly more appealing to most people than celebrating some return to the office on the morning after Labor Day, even though that day also will carry a whole lot of weight.

Better TV, too, than a whole lot of shots of workers exiting subway trains.

Does it matter?: But then a rival Broadway show “Hadestown,” surely cognizant of what it was doing, stole that likely clap of thunder by saying it would open on Sept. 2. Very clever.

Maybe there even will be a further twist. In Chicago, Lollapalooza is taking place even several weeks earlier. That’s going to be a pretty clear indicator of an end to lockdowns and loneliness. Expect the opening night to spawn lots of declarations of mission accomplished with a Midwestern dateline.

Does any of this matter? Perhaps not: all endings are artificial constructs.

But look at the media obsession with finding the origin story, the starting moment, of COVID-19. That’s an ever-shifting issue, too. And it’s just as politically charged as any ending. If we cannot say when or how the pandemic began, how can we hope to agree upon when it’s over?

In the end, though, some sort of consensus about the exit point of the plague will emerge. On Wikipedia, there will eventually be an end date on the COVID-19 entry.

This is a good thing, all in all, even if many missions remain stubbornly unaccomplished. Here is what AP said about that symbolic day in Paris in 1944: “All the emotions suppressed by four years of German domination surged through the people. The streets of the city as we entered were like a combined Mardi Gras, Fourth of July celebration, American Legion convention and New Year’s Eve in Times Square all packed into one.”

In fact and fiction, endings bring needed relief. And they help us mourn our losses, which is one of the remaining pieces of this crisis that has yet to be addressed in any meaningful way.

“Onward!” they say.

— Chris Jones is a Chicago Tribune critic.