A/n: Essential workers, this is a tribute to you. Thank you.
Trigger Warning: Death, dystopia
The era is described with the same sort of reverent and fearful solemnity as those of the World Wars. It started off as a freak accident; a mutation, they said. One man became ill, and then another. They told each other to stay at home and stay safe, but the truth was that they did these things with quiet, mindless obedience, not genuinely comprehending the extent of the issue. They read of terrible things, but they believed with an astounding certainty that they would be safe. It was more of an innate and subconscious conviction than a well-thought out resolution, but it persisted nonetheless.
Doctors, paramedics and nurses were celebrated as heroes, and their willingness or freedom to choose was glossed over in the tales of triumph. They initially said that the police, grocers, and cleaning staff were doing a remarkable job, and tried to honour and remember the brave individuals who were sacrificed for the greater good, but eventually fell silent as they died in inconceivably large numbers.
They caught the disease from surfaces, the air, and one another, and went to hospitals in large numbers. The elderly perished even with the assistance of ventilators, and as they ran out of machines that could help them, the young died too, taking with them the seemingly unshakeable belief that they were invincible. Their breaths sounded shallow and forced until they ultimately stopped, and a hopeful snatched the ventilator away, eagerly expecting it to finally serve its purpose.
Some governments resigned themselves to the sickness and attempted to function as they always did, while others declared massive shutdowns and tried to outwait the disease. Economies crumbled in both scenarios, some more slowly than others. The ones who ventured out were the first to die, and before they could adequately analyze whether they had stepped out of their homes out of choice or necessity, the others began to die too.
In the first year of the lockdown, they hoarded food and supplies, burgeoned on by the equally desperate shopkeepers and manufacturers who were looking to sell their commodities, but the second year of lockdown didn't afford them such luxuries. They cooked the rice that they had bought the previous year and sprinkled the few spices they had on top, dreaming of fresh fruits and vegetables and warm bread. The third year came around, and they were seen roaming the streets; bartering whatever they had for anything they could eat.
Some who escaped the morbid clutches of the sickness or somehow survived it died of hunger and poverty, while others died from the exhaustion of trying to walk thousands of miles to the villages that they called home. People died, and additional deaths were nothing more than statistics except to the select few that quietly grieved their losses. The dead were initially buried in individual coffins, and then in mass graves as countries became petri dishes, and finally were abandoned to rot where they were, while despairing people fled.
They didn't know where they were going, or even why there were trying, when the primary cause of their problems seemed to be an all-pervasive yet miniscule leviathan. Hope, they discovered, was a tricky little thing, clinging to them with an incredible tenacity and proving as hard to rid themselves of as the virus itself.
While the humans shuffled between homes and hospitals, largely leaving the plants and animals to their own devices, the Earth changed. It grew greener and wilder faster than anyone could have expected, and the air smelled cleaner and fresher than anyone remembered it. Birds that hadn't been seen in cities in many years reappeared within the short span of a few months, and curious forest-dwellers took to exploring the deserted streets; reclaiming what had rightfully been theirs.
The class differences that had starkly asserted themselves in the beginning of the pandemic had long since dissipated, and all who remained lived in equally impoverished conditions. When the cure finally arrived, people winced at the memory of the previous 'vaccine'. Adequate trials hadn't been conducted, and it had been permitted under the guise of desperate times that called for desperate measures.
They were desperate but wary, torn between what looked like a possibility of immediate death, or an eventual certainty of it. The tried it nonetheless, and vaccinated those who remained. The hope that had stayed despite their best efforts now had no reason to leave, and they recovered gradually, newly armed with the profound realization that it takes very little for everything to shatter.
They had begun to rebuild the world, but it was unthinkably changed. They had taken to nodding their heads in greeting instead of ostentatiously shaking hands, and real social service won out over pretentious events. They served themselves food more carefully, mindful of how precious it was. Having experienced real, insatiable hunger, they no longer wasted food or water.
The factories reopened once more, and for the first time in history, they operated sustainably without being forced to. They chose to treat their waste before discharging it into water bodies, and hunted and farmed within reason, choosing to refrain from encroaching into animal territory.
They were kinder as well, for it turned out that a formal education wasn't truly necessary to do good in the world. They had suffered, and had grown to help each other out in whatever manner they could. They had experienced reminders of this, of course, first in 1918 and then again in 1945, but nature had opted to remind them once more. They vowed that the lesson would stick this time. Mankind would need no further reminders.