We’re Never Going Back to Normal

We’re Never Going Back to Normal

The question is how we’ll remake the world.


Last Friday, the United States recorded 70,000 cases of SARS-CoV-2, the largest single-day tally since the end of July. Meanwhile, the president of the United States is trashing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, saying, “People are tired of hearing Fauci and these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong.”

In the White House, all the scientists are gone except for Scott Atlas from the Hoover Institution whispering into the president’s ear like Rasputin at the side of Russian Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, telling him what he wants to hear: You’re on the right track; masks don’t work; we don’t need to be testing widely; and we’re on the road to herd immunity.

The winter is most likely to be grim. While it’s hard to predict with any reliability months out from now, the upward trajectory of cases over the past couple of weeks (34 percent over the previous two-week average) is all but certain to be followed by an increase in deaths. We already have more deaths per day than we did in July. This time around, the upper Midwest and Great Plains states are being slammed by the virus, hitting new records for their local epidemics.

And we’re all about to go inside, windows will be shut as the temperatures drop and we’ll all begin to lower our guard, lower our masks. In fact, that is already happening: It’s small gatherings now that are driving increases in cases in many places. I’m tired; you’re tired; we’re all tired. We crave human contact, to see our friends and family. The holidays will simply amp up this desire to get together to celebrate the fall and winter holidays as we do every year.

As much as Trump has botched the response to the virus, it’s not only in the United States that we’re seeing a resurgence in cases. In Europe, countries that were successful in beating back the first wave of Covid-19 are seeing the virus roar back and instituting new measures to contain the latest outbreaks.

As Julia Belluz reports in Vox, most of these countries didn’t use the summer wisely to scale up testing and contact tracing, ensure humane isolation and quarantine (e.g., paid isolation “leave”), institute mandatory mask-wearing, and retro-fit ventilation in places like schools. The countries that did, such as Germany and in Asia-Pacific—New Zealand, South Korea, and China—are thus far managing this next phase of the pandemic far better than the rest of us.

This suggests that a possible Biden presidency doesn’t offer a quick fix to our plight, even if we have models of how to proceed in the “success stories” I mentioned above. We have three months to go should he be inaugurated in January, and the difficulties in mounting and sustaining a pandemic response even with a new administration are considerable, particularly given the fractious nature of our national politics and the control over public health in this country mostly residing with states and localities, many of which will simply resist new policies on partisan grounds.

A vaccine, despite all the hoopla and hype, isn’t likely to be a key part of our response to the pandemic for much of 2021 (and that’s being optimistic). We’ll see data over the next few months, and even if one or more vaccines is shown to be safe and efficacious, we will need to get it to the people who need it and ensure they are willing to take it. No small feat. Meanwhile, which of the new vaccines might be best? Right now, there is no plan to test them head-to-head, to answer this most basic question.

Outside of the direct effects of SARS-CoV-2, American lives have been turned upside down. Businesses in ruins; school children shunted to online learning that many don’t even log on to; steep drops in preventive medical procedures such as mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopies, and vaccinations; a mental health crisis that was evident early on in the pandemic; evictions leaving thousands homeless, even with a CDC moratorium in place; people still locked up despite the extraordinary risks prisons and jails present for those inside from SARS-CoV-2. This is just the start of the list of the downstream effects of this pandemic.

We’re never going to be the same.

We can grieve for the past, but going back to normal doesn’t offer solace to many, particularly when it’s “normal” that got us into this mess. But rather than simply looking backward like Walter Benjamin upon Klee’s Angelus Novus and seeing history as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of [our] feet,” we have to figure out a future.

As Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern who studies epidemics has said, “At some point we’re forced to think about the things we could do without. It’s possible we may see absolute change in what it is that we do.… it’s about the things that we thought we never imagined or we thought impossible or we thought were temporary.… But I also wonder if this is an opportunity to move to new ways of thinking, new ways of being in the world with each other.”

What will help us survive this long winter is not sinking into anger and resentment, looking behind us to make America great or “normal” again. And this isn’t meant to be a moment of spiritual uplift but an invitation to work. Components of the public health response are there to use to help us through the pandemic, but they are only one set of tools we need right now. We have a lot of damage to repair and then we have to imagine and then create a world where we are all less vulnerable to new and unknown viruses, to the growing impact of climate change, to the next unforeseen challenge that will greet us when we least expect it.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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