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Szvetitz on 'A year of COVID': Horrors, hurts, humanity, humility and - yes - hope. We all changed this year

Szvetitz on 'A year of COVID': Horrors, hurts, humanity, humility and - yes - hope. We all changed this year

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RTD managing editor discusses the impact the pandemic had on the newsroom.

My 11th-grade English teacher never let us use the word “things” when describing, well, things. He wanted us to use our vocabulary and imagination to paint a picture, tell a story, evoke emotions and feelings, not rely on something so nondescriptive, bland and easy.

Well, describing 2020 took all the words out of my repertoire that are fit to print in this newspaper. So I’m left with “things.”

Things that changed us. Things that changed Virginia. Things that changed the United States. Things that changed the world. Things that changed learning and education, shopping and dining, working and communicating, mental and physical health. Things that are still shaping how we live, work, play, communicate, heal, feel and simply even breathe.

Will my children even remember a life before the pandemic? How we lived B.C. (before coronavirus)? How we gathered?

Trying to round up everything that happened over the past 365 days and how it will shape the future would be like trying to round up marbles on an ice rink while wearing mittens. It’s just too much.

Here at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, we tried to put into words the horrors, hurts, humanity, humility and, yes, hope of the past 12 months.

Those “things” are what we do, and what you’ve counted on us to provide. We’ve been called to give more than our best this year — to be more than our best this year.

From the daily COVID-19 positivity rate stories and updates to the number of vaccines given out to the disproportionate ravaging effects this virus has had on our Black and Latino communities to the miscommunications and stumbles of the state government’s response to the lives that have been forever changed, we’ve been there through it all.

The millions of words we’ve written in the thousands of stories we’ve edited, designed and published, along with the thousands more photos and videos we’ve produced from the first case of COVID-19 in the state on March 7, 2020, to the first life it took here on March 14, 2020, to the clinics, neighborhoods, communities, hospitals and cemeteries, our staff has been there.

From the unemployment line to the federal stimulus spending, from the wash-your-hand reminders to the mask mandates, from the quarantine protocols to the virtual schooling portals, we’ve not only reported about it, but we’ve lived it.

While reporting and writing about the newly homeschooling mom who is trying to juggle her job and family while trying to figure out how it all works, that same reporter was trying to figure out how to be a newly homeschooling mom trying to write the story while juggling her family and trying to figure out how it all works.

While taking pictures on an assignment about indoor mask mandates and the 6-foot policy, our photographer is reminded to mask up and keep a safe distance, while trying to capture the emotions and nuances of the story.

While writing and editing stories about unemployment claims, our staff also spent hours on the phone trying to get someone to answer about their own claims while on two weeks of furloughs.

While excited to move into our newly renovated office space, equipped with state-of-the-art amenities and ergonomic chairs, two days after it “opened” we sent everyone home to work remotely from their couches, tables and beds.

While coordinating coverage of a story on the challenges of having a funeral for a loved one during the pandemic, the same editor dealt with a personal logistical and emotional nightmare after a death of a loved one states away.

No one was hit harder by COVID-19 in this city, region and country than Black and Latino people, who are dying at two to two-and-a-half times the rate of whites. Reporting by Sabrina Moreno and Mel Leonor pushed our state government to face that disparity and forced it to act, not just in how it tests and treats those communities, but how it is distributing the vaccine and communicating.

That is on top of long-simmering racial injustices that came to a head over the summer after the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, launching more than 90 consecutive days of protests in Richmond.

We faced our own reckoning in the newsroom, as our reporters of color called out the ways in which we have failed to support them, and challenged us to be better than we are.

We, too, are facing questions we must answer: Who do we want to be?

And as we’ve worked to answer, the “things” just kept coming.

Reporters and photographers in the field assured family members they were being safe and taking measures to prevent falling ill, only to self-diagnose dozens of times a day: “Were those allergies, or am I dying?”

Graduations were canceled, missed or done virtually. Weddings were postponed or scaled way down. Children started their first year of school ... on a computer screen. Loved ones were lost. We worried about our parents, those living at home and those in nursing and long-term care facilities. We cried. We grieved. We still are.

We not only covered this pandemic, we lived it as well.

Those are the “things” we all went through. And the “things” we couldn’t just leave at the office — especially when our office was our kitchen table. The same place we gathered for family dinners to smile and laugh in an attempt to create some sense of “normalcy,” doubled as the place we would hurt and cry, dealing with the hardest blows this pandemic had to offer, knowing “normal” would never be normal again.

But there were good “things” as well, lest we forget.

People fell in love, finding someone to share life with in a time of loneliness.

Others started new jobs, careers and lives here. Still others welcomed children and grandchildren, extending their families and their capacity to love more than ever imagined and hope deeper than current reality would allow them to penetrate.

Memories were made.

Time — as cruel as its passing can be — was spent with loved ones who shared the same four walls. Parents got more time with their kids — maybe too much, at times. Kids got more time with their siblings — maybe way too much, at times.

While some “things” were out of control, others were stable. While some “things” were lost, others were found.

Hurt and happiness, craziness and contentment, horror and hope can co-exist.

We learned that this year.

So many “things” happened. And they changed us all. That much is clear.

Another thing, here at The Times-Dispatch, that has become clear is our role in the community has never mattered more than it does right now.

We are here to serve you, our community, and reflect you in our coverage. We are here to hold the powerful accountable, shine a light in dark places, to listen to and amplify voices who have been shushed for too long.

Our coverage is informed by our shared humanity and a deeper understanding of where we’ve been and where we hope to go.

Those are the “things” we’ve come face to face with in the past year. And those are the “things” we must do now ... and forevermore.

Mike Szvetitz is the managing editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Reach him at or (804) 649-6456.

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