I hit a new pandemic low last week. CDC Director Walensky’s comments about the “encouraging” news that most vaccinated people dying of COVID had multiple comorbidities was the catalyst (see my op ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer), but my despair has been deepening for some time.
Hospitals are breaking. Schools can’t function. Services and business are disrupted. There are shortages in stores again. People we know are getting sick. COVID is blazing through, spreading more wildly than ever before. In many ways, this looks like the worst case scenario that we were all so frightened of in March 2020.
Except most people aren’t scared anymore. Everyone seems to be shrugging their shoulders and giving up hope that we can control this pandemic. “We’ll all get it,” they say, and risk death and disability with casual disregard for the consequences. Our callous treatment of the healthcare workers who must still nurse us through those consequences is appalling. Vaccines are keeping many people out of the hospital and alive, but there’s no comfort in saying that a disaster could be worse.
One of the root causes of our current situation is the individualizing of the pandemic. Mask wearing, social distancing, vaccination–there are no mandates for the general population anymore, just under certain circumstances. We have relegated public health measures to individual choice, opening the door to misinformation and conspiracy theories, and silently giving people permission to be selfish or myopic in making those choices.
The belief that vaccinated people would be fine drove the early end of CDC’s masking recommendations last May. Not only was this overconfidence, but it placed emphasis on the individual’s choice to vaccinate over and above masking’s role in reducing the spread of infection. Policymakers lost sight of the benefit of layering protection. By making it about individual choice, we set aside collective and community-level thinking.
You might think your vaccination or mask choice is just about you and your family, but it’s not. It’s about every single person you come into contact with every single day. If you are infected (which is possible even if you are vaccinated) then you could be passing the infection to anyone in your path (although wearing a mask would lower that risk). Other people could be vaccinated and masked and still catch the virus from you, particularly if you are not taking steps to prevent passing it along.
How many of the people you come into contact with are vulnerable or high risk in some way? You can’t look at a person and know if they have diabetes or cancer or autoimmune disease. Your coworker might have high blood pressure, and you would never know. What about the family members of people you interact with? It’s impossible for you to know that the teenager you sat next to on the bus lives with elderly grandparents, or that the clerk at the convenience store has a child with cystic fibrosis. Yet your behavior and choices place all of them at risk.
No one is safe until everyone is safe. That’s not a hyperbolic slogan. It’s science. But we’re not thinking about it that way. Whatever collective motivation we had to flatten the curve two years ago is gone now. People have decided they’re “done” with the pandemic–as if what we want has anything at all to do with it. Our government and public health apparatus has completely failed to remind people that public health requires action from everyone.
Public health measures, which should be about science, have become politicized hot potatoes. We’re fighting about whether to mandate masks or vaccines, instead of coming together to fight the virus. COVID is never going away. We do have to find ways to live with it. What I don’t understand is why living with it can’t include minimizing disease and transmission. Why can’t we take steps to protect one another from the worst impacts of COVID? We live together in a community, with a social contract. Why doesn’t that social contract mean that we do what is necessary to limit the damage of this historic pandemic?
I don’t want division, but we are divided. Some of the people I love are not vaccinated. I love them just as much, and I don’t want to be separated from them. Yet in order to protect my own life, I cannot spend time indoors with these dear ones. Their choice to forego vaccination has taken my choice to interact with them. They have made that choice for me.
I want this pandemic to be over. I want to leave my house again without wondering how many infected people are crossing my path. I want to interact with my friends and community again. But America has decided that the individual choice to forego precautions is more valuable than my safety. I don’t understand how that calculation balances out.
I know I’m not alone in wearing despair that cloaks my rage. Read what people are saying, like Amil Niazi, a parent of children under five, who writes, “I’m angry, sad, frustrated, obliterated, abandoned, but more than that and worst of all, I feel nothing.” Read these powerful words from disability justice advocate Mia Mingus:
You are not entitled to our deaths. You are not entitled to the deaths of our loved ones in the name of capital, privilege and “normal.” You are not entitled to our silence about our pain and suffering and the wet tar grief that envelops us. You are not entitled to our fear and terror at the worsening conditions and chaos of this pandemic, wondering if we will ever be able to safely leave our homes again.
The effects of this pandemic will stretch years into the future, and many books will be written about it. There will be many reckonings at all levels of public life, and continued grief in individual lives. But one thing I don’t think most people realize is that there will be a reckoning over whose lives and choices were valued, and whose lives and choices were tossed aside.