"Voices From the Pandemic: Americans Tell Their Stories of Crisis, Courage and Resilience" by Eli Saslow; Doubleday (240 pages, $27)
"Voices From the Pandemic" is an eerie reading experience: It seems both painfully immediate and an account of a past we’ve already started to forget.
The book’s 27 interviews with a wide range of Americans were conducted during the first year of the coronavirus epidemic, from January 2020, when it seemed little more than a rumor, to January of this year, as vaccines were rolled out and hope seemed possible despite more than half a million deaths.
The interviews are drawn from a series of articles that journalist Eli Saslow wrote for the Washington Post during that year. The series earned him the 2020 George Polk award for oral history.
Saslow’s last book, "Rising Out of Hatred," won the 2019 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for its recounting of the story of Derek Black, a young white supremacist leader whose life was dramatically changed when he attended New College in Sarasota, Florida. Saslow, a longtime Post reporter, won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2014 and has been a Pulitzer finalist several times.
"Voices From the Pandemic" is a diverse chorus: first responders, medical professionals, government employees, nursing home residents, business owners, coronavirus survivors and the families of those who don’t survive.
If there’s an overarching theme in these interviews, it’s that the pandemic has brought out the best in many Americans and the worst in others.
One of the heroes Saslow interviews is Burnell Cotlon, a New Orleans man who opened a neighborhood market in the Lower Ninth Ward to help the community recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. When the pandemic hit, Cotlon’s customers were among the first to lose their jobs. Even though he operated on a shoestring himself, he began giving them groceries on credit for the first time: “I’ve got sixty-two tabs in the book now. From zero to sixty-two in less than a month.” And he does much more.
Another is New York City paramedic Anthony Almojera. He talks about his shockingly poorly paid co-workers: “There are EMTs on my team who’ve been pulling double shifts in a pandemic and performing life support for sixteen hours, and then they go home and they have to drive Uber to pay their rent.” He’s pulling those shifts too, and then trying to help suicidal colleagues. “Heroes, right? The anger is blinding.”
Saslow talks to doctors and nurses about their nightmarish experiences: A Chicago doctor who is working six nights a week, 14 hours a night, doing nothing but intubating patients. An emergency nurse who normally oversees four patients trying to handle two dozen, all of them critically ill. An ER nursing manager who talks about patients sitting in the waiting room for a full day after admission because that chair is the only place left to put them.
Some of the interview subjects are people whose jobs bring them into conflict with anti-maskers and conspiracy theorists of various stripes. Lori Wagoner is a retail clerk in North Carolina who is menaced so viciously when she asks customers to wear masks that the store’s owners begin locking the doors during business hours, and she keeps pepper spray at the register.
Amber Elliot is a county health director in Missouri who is blindsided by the hostility of people who rage against her at meetings and on social media. “It’s true,” she says. “I do have an agenda. I want disease transmission to go down. I want to keep this community safe. I want fewer people to die.” Her county is a COVID-19 hot spot at the time of the interview, but she’s so disturbed by people following her children and making death threats against her that she resigns.
Saslow talks to coronavirus patients as well. Darlene Krawetz of Syracuse, New York, is a 52-year-old nurse who contracts COVID-19 and tells him about her overwhelming symptoms in careful detail. After she dies, Saslow interviews her son and daughter.
Another subject, Kaitlin Denis, survives the coronavirus but is interviewed nine months later, when she’s still suffering “long COVID.” When she caught the virus, she was 30, a new bride, an “insanely healthy” runner with a high-powered job in finance. Now she suffers such severe fatigue, brain fog and other symptoms that she can’t work and gets winded from taking a shower. “A few months ago,” she says, “I was making million-dollar trades and traveling all over the country. Now I draw little scarecrows and tape them up on the wall.”
Florida makes several appearances in the book. Roger Desjarlais, county manager in Lee County, talks about the disastrous bumbling of the initial vaccine rollout in December 2020, when the federal government handed it off to the states and Florida in turn dropped it on the unprepared counties. Fort Myers resident Marlene Roehm talks about she and her husband making 248 calls to the vaccine appointment hotline before they “hit the jackpot.”
Johnny Rivero of Brandon, Florida, whom Saslow interviewed in May 2020 as he stood in line at a food bank, is a Coast Guard vet who’s never needed assistance before, but the long-lasting breakdown of Florida’s unemployment system in the first part of the pandemic leaves him desperate.
"Voices From the Pandemic" ends with some voices of hope: a virologist who consulted on the development of vaccines, a nursing home resident who celebrates finally getting a shot.
That was in January, before the delta variant and the anti-vaxxers. Saslow has done a sterling job of capturing real people’s experiences of the start of the pandemic. It’s going to be interesting to read the chronicles of the second year.