Where are we now? This time last year, even President Trump knew the virus was a “plague” that “rips you apart.” Many of us tried to hold it together, hoping as the summer of 2020 rolled around that the worst was over, hunkering down as much as we could but with the respite of warmer weather allowing us some comfort. But hundreds of thousands didn’t make it to see the autumn leaves or the first snow last year, as the pandemic went into overdrive in the United States: 200,000 dead by September, 300,000 dead by December, 400,000 dead by Trump’s last day in the White House in January 2021. As of April 6, according to The New York Times’ running tally, we’ve lost 556,016 men, women, and children.
But there is hope. Physicians and nurses have gotten better at treating Covid-19, even if the drugs we have against the disease are still few. And the best news has been the most surprising. A year ago I was deeply pessimistic about the prospect of SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development, citing the scientific obstacles that even money wouldn’t likely overcome. But I was wrong and am happy to say so. We now have multiple effective vaccines against this plague, and over 60 million Americans have been jabbed, representing close to 20 percent of the US population.
But where does that leave us? We’re in the space between right now, a purgatory between the hell of 2020 and some future post-Covid, which, frankly, is as hard to imagine as heaven. This limbo is disorienting to many of us. Some of us—particularly if we are white and/or wealthy—have been vaccinated and wondering what we can do now. Can we see friends and family, resume some normalcy in our lives? According to the CDC, people who are vaccinated can see others who are vaccinated without masks, even indoors, in private settings. But this is white privilege run amok. Some 80 percent of Americans are still not vaccinated—and if you are Black or Latino, you’re less likely to have been vaccinated than your white peers in the United States, though the data varies by state. How comfortable are you crafting a zone of normalcy around your life now, if you’ve been privileged enough to be vaccinated, knowing others are still facing the risk of infection and death around you?
This isn’t meant to guilt-trip anyone who has been immunized; instead, it’s a plea to realize you have a job to do to ensure that your community is fully covered, not just you and your family and friends. The goal is community protection—herd immunity—since vanquishing the virus means not leaving sanctuaries of transmission for SARS-CoV-2 in pockets across our cities and towns across America. This is a political project, because if there is any lesson of pandemics past—and the long history of American health crises—it’s that we are happy to live with health disparities in the United States as long as they are someone else’s misery.
Even as millions of Americans are getting vaccinated, we’re seeing cases jump up again, and hospitalizations rise too, but this time in younger age groups. As Katherine Wu has written for The Atlantic, we’re seeing both vaccinated and unvaccinated people let down their guard, loosening up on social distancing in this period that is supposed to be the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
This is completely understandable. We are all done with this shit. Even those who have been able to afford to stay home are just burnt out from a year of seclusion and isolation. But these changes in human behavior, often egged on by irresponsible politicians, or facilitated by other political leaders who feel compelled to open up their states to secure their political futures, are prolonging this crisis. There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but foot by foot we keep extending that tunnel in front of us, giving SARS-CoV-2 new hosts and new territory to spread across and call home. At this point, it’s unlikely Americans are going to retreat to the level of social distancing of 2020, which was never enough to tamp down Covid-19 as was done in counties in Asia and Oceania, so we’ve got to turbocharge vaccination efforts, which leads us back to the political project I mentioned above. It’s not about you. It’s about getting everyone vaccinated as fast as possible.
Even then, it remains complicated. Most of the world is still unvaccinated. While Americans are willing to live with health disparities within our borders for generations, we simply ignore the suffering of others beyond our shores. There is still no plan to vaccinate the world—and we keep pretending that once we have most Americans vaccinated, this won’t matter. Well, it will. Global transportation networks spread SARS-CoV-2 in the first place, and have allowed variants to spread rapidly across the globe even under the heightened vigilance of many nations during the pandemic.
The end of Covid-19 will not be like turning off a light-switch and leaving the room. The pandemic is going to persist globally for a while, with the political and economic forces that drive inequity in normal times creating winners and losers once again. Deaths will ebb in the United States, but the virus will recrudesce and pop up again and again from both from local sources and from foreign lands. We will learn to live with it, with the real American carnage SARS-CoV-2 has wrought, those living with long Covid, the grieving survivors of the dead.
Not to mention the social costs: the children who lost a year of education, the economic costs, so many livelihoods shattered. We’ll learn to live with them too. It is to our shame that we will turn our backs on what we’ve all just suffered, because it’s far easier and far less painful to plaster over the damage, make simple repairs rather than rebuild the social infrastructure of a nation already in peril before the Great Plague of 2020.
Joy will return. We will embrace friends and loved ones, celebrate birthdays, weddings, holidays together. We will write a new book of laughter and forgetting. But infectious diseases will always be with us, and humans will let politics spin out new pandemics as they always do, making the mistakes we made last year all over again—just as we did with HIV, tuberculosis, and other plagues during our short history on this planet.
As we emerge from the haze of the past year, it might be prudent to heed the musings of Dr. Rieux from Albert Camus’s La Peste at the end of one epidemic in the pages of fiction, with the knowledge that all this has happened before, and all this will happen again:
And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.