Late-stage Pandemic

It’s the last week of April, 2021.

It’s five weeks since my first COVID-19 vaccine shot, and one week since my second.

It’s daylight hours in a Groundhog Day limbo, in which time no longer seems to have any meaning beyond the wheel of dawn to noon to dusk to night, a repetitive loop which it’s impossible to define as having any ending or beginning.

That last one might be a dramatic exaggeration, but the feeling is certainly not just me; on Monday ProPublica began an official e-mail with the words “In an era in which time has grown increasingly hazy…”

Yesterday, the CDC made a confusing announcement blessing a few limited unmasked activities for fully vaccinated people, all of which activities people have been doing without masks or vaccination.

Everywhere it seems like this has all just outlived our capacity to sustain it, at least in the sense of an acute crisis during which we sort of hold our collective breath. There are many many caveats here, the most important being that I’m not an expert in virology or public health and you should seek one out if you want expert guidance on the COVID-19 pandemic. For the personal reflections of one 42-year-old mostly vaccinated Very Online American, read on.

As best I can tell, anyone imagining that COVID-19 is like a fire and we should remain in emergency mode until the fire is completely out is, at this point, laboring under a misapprehension. I have seen too many credible, if quiet, reports of experts over too long a period of time remarking that COVID-19 is endemic. Which means it’s going to circulate perpetually in the human population, with occasional outbreaks, variants, etc., and this is now a fact of life. For that matter, I recall very early in the pandemic one or two comments that eventually everyone will get or be exposed to COVID-19, and certainly the concept of “flatten the curve” was not so much “stay home to avoid COVID” as it was “don’t get COVID all at once and overwhelm the hospital system.”

But, of course, most people are not good with nuance or complexity, let alone keeping track of it over time. At this point it seems like lots of people have formed their simplified models for thinking about the pandemic, and even turned them into part of their identities. Obviously, reactionary culture is the biggest part of that, but within my own left-of-center Twitter universe I see people here and there who seem like “I’m House #WearAGoddamnMask and will continue to wear our colors no matter what.”

Which is not really harmful, and for what it’s worth, divergent personal choices around airborne disease are completely normal in some societies. Lately I think often of my time in Tokyo, where I observed in 2015 that “People wearing masks were a decided minority, but I think in Tokyo it has become like, say, glasses: it has been normalized in the sense that some people wear them, other people don’t, and you really pay it no special regard.”

Of course personal decisions affect more than one’s personal experience, here. But it seems like we have found the limits of our poisoned culture when it comes to accepting a responsibility to others, as well as accepting any unifying authority or narrative about reality itself.

This is one reason why I wonder how much different things actually could have been, in reality. Certainly the Trump administration was a disaster, and made things worse in all kind of ways, from dissolving pandemic-response preparedness, to lying and downplaying the situation, to stealing PPE, etc., etc. But unless we imagine a completely different world, even a responsible presidency would have had to operate amid many of the same factors which fed and watered the pandemic, and which are honestly not at all unique to America. Looking around the world, America has certainly had a bad pandemic response record, but hardly any societies really pulled off and sustained an ideal lockdown/test/trace/isolate scenario to “crush the curve” and keep it crushed. The few which have done so are mostly islands (or near enough as in the case of South Korea).

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t have tried to do more, or that the many bad actors helping the pandemic aren’t responsible for real harm.

But they’re there, society doesn’t seem to know what to do about them, and more than a year into this, I think that it’s becoming reasonable to recognize that we’re doing much of what we can, and it’s getting parts of the world toward a “post-pandemic” life, but that’s not and is not going become a “no-COVID” life.

Personally I have been super-cautious around COVID-19, and even hyper-cautious since vaccines were announced and I determined that I would not get this awful virus just before eligibility for the vaccine. Even though a lot of my life has continued as usual, being a not-very-outgoing freelancer, I have put some things on hold for a year or more. It feels like this is the time to begin changing that, and figuring out what vaccinated-in-an-endemic-COVID-world life is like, or else that time will never arrive and it’s just gray limbo forever. Sure I will carry on covering my face when I go inside places other than my apartment, for now. But I have trouble accepting that I need to do this because of extreme jeopardy to my health; why the hell did I get vaccinated? I understand the concept of “herd immunity,” but not only is it questionable that America will ever get there*, it’s also long after the point when vaccines should have been promoted as “great protection when and only when almost everyone is vaccinated” if that’s how we wanted people to think about them.

Anyway it just seems like “everything will be okay” is not in the foreseeable future with COVID-19, any more than it is with lots of other things, and it’s time for me to adapt expectations and proceed accordingly.

* Update 5/2: Today a NY Times story corroborates most of my impressions of these issues.

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