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COVID Won't Be Over Until It's Over. And Probably Not Even Then.

Osita Nwanevu
9 min read
COVID Won't Be Over Until It's Over. And Probably Not Even Then.
Donald Trung Quoc Don (Chữ Hán: 徵國單) - Wikimedia Commons

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.

Recent Work

I’ve just started a column that’ll run every other month in The Guardian. My first piece was on Biden’s first year in office. The headline ⁠— “Biden’s administration is in shambles. It’s not entirely his fault” ⁠— makes it sound like more of an apologia than it really is, but I suppose it’s basically true:

Inequality and corporate power are growing. Decades of rhetoric and poor policies have failed to bring about much progress on issues from healthcare to education. And both immediate crises like the coronavirus pandemic and long-term challenges like the climate crisis seem beyond our capacity to address.
That impotence has been the product of our institutions and the myths that sustain faith in them. Biden has taken a belated and tentative interest in reworking the Senate’s rules; opposition from Manchin and Sinema and the electoral biases of our system have not only hobbled his agenda, but also ensured that Democrats won’t be able to govern on their own again in Washington for many years to come should they lose their governing majority in November.
It’s not obvious that there’s anything Biden can do to save the party from that fate. But it’s clear what moral leadership demands from him now. Our federal order is strangling us. He should say so. He should admit too that conflict and dissensus will always define American society. No other future is available for a country as large, diverse and nominally free as ours. And the achievements we take the most pride in today ⁠– from women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement ⁠– simply would not have been possible if leaders had limited their aspirations to objectives that “brought Americans together”. Naturally, there’s not a chance in hell anything like this will ever pass from Biden’s lips. It’s not savvy and it’s not safe. But it is the truth, and the American people deserve to hear it from someone some day.


One reason why the column for The Guardian is bimonthly is that I really don’t feel like I have very much to say about the ins and outs of the political news cycle anymore. I’m reasonably confident some scaled down version of BBB will pass before the midterms. I’m also reasonably confident Biden will lose his governing majority anyway. Also, the Supreme Court seems likely to overturn Roe or do something close. These are the things that will really matter politically this calendar year; most things we talk about actively now are filler destined to be forgotten as thoroughly as people seem to have forgotten most of the Obama years.

The other thing that might matter a great deal politically, of course, is the pandemic, although it’s hard to gauge its potential impact without knowing whether conditions will improve. And no one really does. There’s a widespread misconception that viruses always get less virulent over time. This isn’t so ⁠— we lucked out with Omicron being “mild,” but “mild,” as of this week, has brought us to about 700,000 to 800,000 new cases a day, 2,000-4,000 deaths a day, and the highest hospitalization rate of the entire pandemic thus far.

How does this end? COVID is here to stay ⁠— that much is basically certain ⁠— and life as we lived it in February 2020 really isn’t going to return even when the masks and all the rest are gone. That’s a reality I think most Americans are prepared to live with. But how many more will die or fall ill before we're out of the thick of things? It’s entirely possible that the pandemic will get even worse before it gets better ⁠— particularly if more and more Americans who’d been taking the pandemic seriously decide to declare it socially “over” before it’s “over” as a matter of epidemiology. The right is a lost cause - there’s nothing to be done there. But what happens if liberals decide to fully throw in the towel in large numbers?

I don’t really think they will, but the voices trying to make it happen are worth keeping an eye on. You’ve surely seen by now the clip of Bari Weiss on Maher. It’s really no coincidence that this is the same crowd of reactionaries that’s been beating the drum about “cancel culture.” As I wrote on Twitter this weekend, the through line between all of their concerns is a horror that they might be judged negatively by their sociopolitical peers for having outré opinions. That’s a thing that happens in life ⁠— sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. But the thing to stress in this particular case is that if you’d like to live as though we’re not in the middle of a pandemic that almost certainly will have killed over a million Americans by the time it’s through, no one is really stopping you ⁠— especially if you live in the vast swaths of the country that haven’t really enforced mandates. As much as people whine about it, life even with all the basic COVID precautions at this point ⁠— vaccines, masks, and distancing ⁠— isn’t radically far from normalcy anyway. Alex Pareene recently wrote about home life under COVID with his son for his newsletter:

I will take him to gymnastics class tomorrow morning, and then to a school friend’s birthday party (weather permitting) in the afternoon. We’re also making plans with another family to go ice skating on Sunday, which my kid has never done, because (as he explained to us last winter) he was waiting until he turned five, which he did this month. (He also said he was waiting until he turned five to get a haircut, but he quickly reneged on that once the day came.) My mother came to visit for her grandson’s birthday, and we went with her and a few other friends to one of his favorite local restaurants for a birthday brunch.
That’s a snapshot of my life in January 2022. Elsewhere, Disney World was officially full on New Year’s Eve. For $107 I could book a flight to Bermuda this weekend. The Knicks lost at home yesterday; a fan was spotted at the game watching The Office on mute. Vietnamese restaurant Que Viet, a Minneapolis mainstay famous for the giant egg rolls on a stick it sells each year at the Minnesota State Fair, is opening a St. Paul location. The number one movie in the country is Scream.
[...] “Normal” is still an impossible state of affairs for an untold number of people with immunodeficiency or hospital jobs or dead parents or lost homes. Our schools here are open (except when classes go remote, as they regularly do, because, again, so many people are catching Covid-19), but parents everywhere are understandably at the ends of their ropes in the current surge. We’re deeply relieved our kid just became vaccine-eligible; others might still wait a year or more.
But, with a couple exceptions, those sorts of people, with legitimate complaints about what the unchecked spread of the virus has done to their lives, aren’t really the ones you actually see complaining so goddamn much, because most of those sorts of people don’t have the sorts of platforms that would lead me to come across their complaints.

As I wrote a few letters back, I had symptoms consistent with COVID for about a week and a half, but wasn’t able to get tested. I’ve scaled back a lot of my activities over the past two months, but before the Omicron wave, I was pretty out and about ⁠— bars, restaurants, the movies, fencing, jam sessions, concerts. I read the news, I watched the numbers locally, and I adjusted my behavior accordingly. Many are making greater sacrifices than I’ve had to. It’s hard. But the things that have been asked of us are wholly reasonable given the scale of what we’re facing. It’s true that you might get called a narcissist for complaining about masks. That’s not a policy problem; your shame and indignation aren’t something your mayor, the CDC, or the White House can fix. Do what you want; those of us who want to keep taking the situation seriously will think less of you. That’s the deal. It is what it is.

If we want to be charitable about some of the hackles people are raising about COVID restrictions, we should probably think a bit about whether the absence of ritualized grief ⁠— something I’ve puzzled about from the very beginning of the pandemic ⁠— has made the pandemic’s toll seem less palpable and real. But it’s probably not that simple. At The New Republic, Marion Renault, who’s covered the pandemic closely, recently wrote about her own desensitization:

I count myself as an uncomfortable participant in this widespread moral and emotional flatlining. Two years into Covid-19, my soul seems to be slowly taking itself offline. I avoid once-horrifying, now-stupefying pandemic statistics that inform me that the rolling average for daily cases has more than tripled last winter’s then-record-breaking rate and that 13,000 people in the United States died of Covid-19 last week alone (9/11’s death toll, four times over). When it comes to contemplating another wave of unending testing lines, circling ambulances, people choking on their own lungs in lonesome deathbeds, mobile morgues, and disenfranchised grief, I either can’t any longer or won’t anymore. An editor asks me to write a story (this one) about the public’s abandonment of our ground-down health care system in its darkest hour, and I resist.
When I bring this all up with my therapist, she tells me I am not her only patient struggling with pandemic apathy. Right now, she says, it seems to be especially afflicting those who, until recently, had considered themselves highly engaged, cooperating as much as possible with public health guidelines to protect society’s most vulnerable and enact their core values of justice and compassion. In our apathy, we finally yield to a dread that all our careful compliance has been in vain, given omicron’s brutal strain on the health care system. “We’re always looking to make sense out of something we can’t make sense of,” she advises. “Dissociation is a survival mode.”
As the pandemic’s horrors evolve yet again, apathy offers a blunt, last-ditch psychological defense. It numbs our remaining senses. It steels our growing weaknesses. It acknowledges the intolerability of reality by ignoring it altogether.

Beyond the apathy we might be inclined to on an individual level, I do think that our collective response to the pandemic in this country will continue to be shaped by the mentality I tried to sketch out in April 2020:

Will this tragedy reshape us? Were this some other kind of catastrophe, we’d see Americans take to the streets in large numbers; we may still after the pandemic ends. We are good, as a country, at catharsis. But none of the strong but fleeting responses to the other horrors inflicted on this country by this president—the Muslim ban, the ICE raids and deportations, the family separations, the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, and all the rest—stretched into action commensurate with all that is awry in this period in American life or all that has always been awry with America.
There is hope all around that the scale of this new situation will bring more out of us—that a crisis already touching every American one way or another will yield, finally, some kind of awakening. But just over a decade ago, we were hit by a deep recession that upended millions of lives without upending the basic premises and structures underpinning the American economy. For all the comfort they provide, the praises sung for American resilience in times of turmoil are ultimately paeans to the strength of American inertia. There is an itch already for a return to something like normalcy: not after the crisis has passed, but now, even as the bodies pile up in overfilled morgues, as though it were possible.

There was nothing exclusively Trumpian or right-wing, as we see now, about that itch. There’s a real hunger all around ⁠— and not just with COVID ⁠— for certainty and a return to a sense that the world is governed by a set of intelligible, stabilizing rules, ones preferably set in alignment with American interests. Everyone who really matters in this country ⁠— in Washington, in the board rooms, at the polls ⁠—  grew up in an era when even the threat of existential, annihilating conflict could be internalized as a force that brought order to the world. Clear lines, clear enemies, all matters subsumed by or slotted into a grand and simple ideological battle between good and evil. But now our grand problems don’t seem as simple ⁠— not that they ever really were. Climate change, inequality, intractable sociopolitical divisions, decaying institutions ⁠—to pessimists like me, the first 20 years of this century already suggested we’d spend the rest of it watching the old world come apart. COVID was a surprise, and maybe the first of many. An early sign that things might get even worse than I’d thought.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

If you’ve been playing Wordle a lot, this Wikipedia-based game is good for a change of pace. It’s simple ⁠— you line people, events, and things up in chronological order. My streak so far is 19. Good luck.