We’ve entered a new phase in the Covid-19 pandemic, which we can call bipartisan, unilateral surrender. From liberal and conservative pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle to the celebrity docs who show up on cable news or in supermarket magazines, we’re being told SARS-CoV-2 is endemic now—which of course has nothing to do with the technical term, but has become popular shorthand for “it’s over.” We’re vaxxed-and-done now and we should be allowed, with no more mask requirements or other efforts to mitigate spread, to resume our pre-pandemic lives with the “urgency of normal.”
I’ve spent two years railing about the irresponsibility and cruelty of many Republicans and their cavalier response to the pandemic, endangering millions with policies destined to simply make people sick: suggesting that vaccination and freedom are incompatible concepts, that grandparents were willing to die for the economy—the whole horrible litany of lies and misinformation churned out by the party and its proxies.
But now it’s different. People who were scrupulous about following public health advice in 2020 are now too tired, frustrated, and fed-up to care. Those still masking, doing some social distancing, trying to do their part to stem the tide of the pandemic are being treated as if they are holdouts in a war that is long over. Or risk-averse scaredy-cats, ridiculed as out-of-touch liberal elites by commentators on the right like Ross Douhtat; as deluded, too-far-to-the-left zealots by centrist pundits like David Leonhardt. Both of whom write for that touchstone of very serious people everywhere, The New York Times, so it must be true.
Except the pandemic is not over by a long shot. We’ve been seeing 1,000 deaths a day in the United States for months now; over the past few weeks, as Omicron deaths catch up to the vast number of infections diagnosed weeks earlier, we’ve had far more than that. The last day of January saw over 2,500 deaths in this country. Hospitals are still reeling in many places, and both health care and public health workers on the front line are just burned out and losing their shit. And that word—endemic—which in epidemiological terms connotes a pathogen that has stabilized at a long-term equilibrium in a population—hasn’t really arrived yet, with the pandemic still raging across the globe, even as Omicron numbers start to decline in some places. Then there’s the belief—now popular in the press—that Omicron is the “last” variant of any real concern. We’ll all have been exposed to the virus or vaccinated against it soon enough, and any subsequent strains that may wash over us will be mild, no worse than the flu or the common cold.
I’m not suggesting that we need to be on a state of high alert forever. But we need to shape Covid-19 policies according to the data, not by wishful thinking among people who should know better. To sound the all-clear now or imply that we can in the next few weeks is presumptuous at best. If we want to learn from history, we can simply look at the 20th century’s most fearsome pandemics for guidance. John Barry, the historian of the great influenza of 1918, reminds us that the deadly fourth wave of that catastrophe only occurred in 1920, when millions had already been exposed to the virus, when the lethality of the third wave was subsiding, most people had let down their guard, and no public official was interested in pushing mitigation efforts in the face of the indifference and weariness of a nation. Barry also reminds us that “natural immunity” and vaccination after the influenza pandemics in the late 1950s didn’t stop the virus from cutting a large swath of death in 1960 when it returned with a vengeance. A similar scenario played out in Europe in 1968 and 2009 flu pandemics, when, after a first round of infections and vaccinations, influenza’s second wave crested and washed over the weary continent.
In more recent memory, I can remember when in 1996, with the advent of new AIDS drugs that revolutionized the care of HIV infection (and saved my life), some pundits were calling it the end of the AIDS epidemic. Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece in The New York Times Magazine called “When Plagues End” in November of that year. Of course, the AIDS epidemic wasn’t over for everyone. The privileged gay men who had health insurance and easy access to health care certainly took the drugs and went home, abandoning the fight against the epidemic as it continued to ravage Black and brown US communities, particularly young gay men of color, as it moved from the middle-class urban enclaves of the North and West to become a more rural and more Southern epidemic.
What we’re seeing now is a combination of what we saw with influenza and with HIV. First, it’s capitulation based on misguided or at least premature hope, frustration, and anger that this has gone on for so long, disrupting our lives. It doesn’t help that America’s political leaders have never really stepped up to address the pandemic with the seriousness of other nations, nor provided the necessary social and economic support to help people survive these past few years. Instead, they have largely left us alone against a virus. While pundits try to spin this as a debate about risk management at an individual level—claiming that some of us are being too cautious as we enter the golden age of endemicity—it’s far more like what happened with HIV: Once people feel like they’re safe enough, the safety of others doesn’t really matter that much.
In his letter from jail in Birmingham, Ala., Martin Luther King Jr. bemoaned “the white moderate” and how he found the “shallow understanding from people of goodwill…more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” The great, white middle—stretching right and left across the political spectrum and the op-ed pages of the Times—is ready to move on. The thing is: Those left behind don’t have the choices or the resources that those with privilege do, whether they are poor, living with disabilities or chronic medical conditions—or just too old to matter. As my friend and colleague Steven Thrasher has noted, they will become the latest viral underclass in America, where inequality and disease collide.
Perhaps we’ll all get lucky. Maybe the disease will die out over the next few months, or over the next year or so, and while new variants will emerge, they’ll be of little clinical consequence. It all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
I’ve strangely hoped that we would find a way to rally to this greatest of challenges facing us—a once-in-a-century pandemic. But that was never going to happen, was it? The American way isn’t about building a system that works for all of us, protects everyone. Nor are Americans really interested in being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. What we are, who we are, set us up for the outsize calamity that has happened over the past two years. We’ve never believed everyone needed access to health care, a robust safety net, and a comprehensive public health system. In America, if you don’t make it, or fall, or stumble, it’s your own fault, because here we are all self-made men and women. Those who survive are meant to do so. The rest of us are simply collateral damage, in a social Darwinism that is American as apple pie.