Haunted by the Ghost of 2019

Our obsession with going back to our pre-pandemic lives is keeping us from building a better future.

Illustration of the number 2019 in which the "1" is replaced by a ghost
Getty; The Atlantic

I didn’t think the end of 2019 was a big deal at the time. The end of the decade heightened the usual end-of-year nostalgia, and people seemed obsessed with looking back. Everyone was writing “best of the decade” lists and talking about what they’d accomplished in the past 10 years. Everyone was making plans and predictions for the next decade. I thought it all sounded kind of silly. I didn’t think for a second that anything would be different just because the date on the calendar was about to change; 2020 would be just another year, just as 2019 had been.

And then, a few months into 2020, everything really did change overnight. I know that in reality, the coronavirus pandemic was a cumulative process, not a sudden shift. But I nevertheless experienced it as one, and so did most of the people I know. The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, a Wednesday. On Monday of that week, I was out of town visiting a friend, and we were making plans to go to restaurants and concerts; by Thursday, I was frantically trying to get an earlier flight home. On Monday, all I wanted to do was look toward the future; by Thursday, I was desperately longing for the past. More precisely, I was longing for 2019.

Certain years come to represent something more than the span of a calendar across 12 months: 2016, the beginning of the Trump era; 2001, forever associated with September 11 and the war on terrorism that followed; 1969, a year synonymous with counterculture. The name of a year becomes a shorthand for a particular catastrophe, rupture, or cultural shift. When 2020 became synonymous with crisis, 2019 became synonymous with normalcy, with “real life.” The year 2020 didn’t just change our lives; it radically altered our vocabulary as well. There are so many words I barely ever said out loud before 2020 that I now use regularly: variant, quarantine, KN95, COVID itself. One more word in that new vocabulary is 2019—a year that now stands for the whole concept of Before.

Now, in 2022, the pandemic isn’t over, but something is over. The era of mandated restrictions, of collective sacrifice as a popular idea, of talk about a transformed world has been replaced with an uneasy, fractured normalcy. Most people can do just about anything you could do pre-pandemic, although it’s not always clear whether you should or what the risks and consequences might be. All the language of reopening is about going back: Concerts are back; movies are back; restaurants are back; parties are back; travel is back. We’re building back better. We’re returning—to work, to the office, to our lives. For so long, we were promised that one day, all of this would be over, and we would go back to normal. Now it’s happening, if for no reason other than that enough time has passed as to make waiting any longer intolerable. This return to normalcy can’t help but evoke 2019, because 2019 is the last existing touchstone for when things were normal. Our lives in 2022 are haunted by the ghost of 2019. If things here and now feel a little uncanny, it may be because we are living in two different times at once, moving forward into 2023 while pretending it’s 2019 again.

In 2020 and 2021, we talked about normalcy in other and perhaps more accurate ways. All of the longing for the past brought on an acknowledgment that normal had, in many ways, never been that great to begin with. Early in the pandemic, it was commonly argued that we should take this rupture as an opportunity to remake the world. And the burdens of the pandemic did lead to experimentation that might never have happened otherwise. Many people were allowed to work remotely and given accommodations that took into account the reality of physical and mental limitations. Measures such as the expanded child tax credit acknowledged the enormous burden placed on caregivers. Stimulus checks and grant and loan programs for businesses addressed widespread economic hardship. None of this was enough to fully alleviate that hardship or change the trajectory of society. But it felt like a beginning. It felt like some momentum was building toward the idea of a kinder society. Maybe the future could be more bearable than the past.

It didn’t last. That flicker of hope has mostly burned out: Many accommodations for employees have been rolled back, more and more companies have made in-person work mandatory, and parents are still overwhelmed while pandemic-era programs meant to help with caring for children have been either reduced or discontinued entirely. The economic climate is arguably grimmer than it was in the depths of the pandemic, with inflation surging in the past few months to a 40-year high, massive layoffs at several large companies, and fear of a recession looming on the horizon. But federal unemployment assistance and eviction moratoriums have ended. Within communities, many mutual-aid groups have struggled to keep going in 2022. We aren’t even attempting to prepare for the next pandemic; to think about the next pandemic would necessarily mean acknowledging the current one, which is supposedly over. It would mean admitting that it won’t ever be 2019 again.

And yet, in many ways, my life in 2022 resembles my life in 2019. I can go to the movies, get on a plane or train to visit family, and hug them when I arrive. I can throw a party, eat at a restaurant, buy concert tickets, and make plans for the future. Masks are a rare sight in public, and people are so used to being able to make plans with one another that we’ve started canceling them again for no good reason. This is the return to 2019 that was promised. Except none of it feels quite the same.

When I go to a concert, or to an airport, or to a crowded bar or restaurant, I feel anxious, and then I question if that feeling is really because of the pandemic or if I simply don’t remember that this is how I always felt before. Returning to parts of the city I used to pass through all the time, I find myself taking account of what’s disappeared and what’s stayed the same. Every change in the landscape—every missing restaurant, every piece of new construction—feels like a reminder of all the much larger things lost, and of how I won’t ever again be the person I was when I hadn’t been through any of this yet. For a while, these changes were a regular topic of conversation at nervous, out-of-practice indoor gatherings, but you can only talk about one thing for so long. Part of me is relieved to not be having the same conversation over and over again, but another part has no idea what other conversation to have. I do the things I did in 2019 and every year before that, but although they look the same from the outside, I feel as if I am role-playing someone else’s normal life in an alternate timeline where none of this happened.

There’s a trope in horror movies where someone comes back from the dead, but they come back wrong. In many cases, this is part of a story about hubris and grief: Someone who has lost a loved one bargains with an evil power to bring that loved one back, but when they return, something’s not quite right. The horror unfolds from there. The moral of the story is that the timeline can’t ever run backwards, and that refusing to accept our losses only makes the nightmare worse. Everywhere is open again, except for all of the places that closed for good. Everyone is returning to normal, except for the millions of people who didn’t make it and the millions more whose health doesn’t allow them to dial back precautions. Everything that did come back is tinged with loss and haunted by ghosts. But most people don’t want to talk about it. They want to cosplay 2019.

Right now I can do all of the things I did in 2019—except not know what happens in 2020. Maybe that’s what the collective longing to return to 2019 is really about: a desire not just to go back to our old rhythms of life, but to be able to take that life for granted. But returning to offices and crowded venues and indoor parties, taking off our masks, and even declaring a clearly ongoing pandemic over won’t let us unlearn what we know. We’ve been haunted by the ghost of 2019 since March 2020, and now, as we attempt to construct the future, we keep turning back to the past, summoning that same ghost.

It makes sense that many of us would long for the time before all of this, when we didn’t know the things we know now and hadn’t lost the things we’ve lost since. But we can’t imagine a new way of being if we cling to an old one. The past is not a place to return to. It can only come back wrong, lumbering out of the grave, carrying all of our losses with it—at once familiar and unfamiliar. A return to 2019 is an attempt to erase all of the losses that happened between then and now, but those losses, like the monster in a horror movie, will devour us if we refuse to face them.