Here we go again.
COVID cases are through the roof – around 680,000 a day, officially, and that’s a minority. The test can not keep up. ICUs are approaching capacity. The CDC’s quarantine guidelines are unfathomable. And now the death toll is rising, more than 1,500 every day.
Sure, the omicron variant seems “milder” than its predecessors, especially for those who have been fully vaccinated and boosted. But 12% of Americans over the age of 65 – those most susceptible to serious illness – are not fully vaccinated. Their population is highly concentrated in rural parts of the country; omicron has so far torn through major city centers like New York City and Boston. Nearly 40% of the U.S. population is also not fully vaccinated. In other words, it’s getting worse.
In red states, which long ago decided to wish away the pandemic, both cases and hospitalizations have risen sharply: increases of 227% and 293% in Florida, respectively; 678% and 136% in Texas; 546% and 361% in Louisiana; 702% and 203% in Mississippi.
But it’s not just red states. Two years later, the country – both Democrats and Republicans – has decided that we are over the pandemic. The schools are open. The same is true of bars and restaurants – in some states with mask “mandates” that let you remove your mask as soon as you eat or drink, making the exercise pointless. And it looks like the Supreme Court will invalidate the Biden administration’s vaccination or test mandate for large company employees because of conservative judges’ ideological zeal to hamper the “administrative state” (and Judge Alito’s anti-wax flirtations).
Of course, what the government allows, the market sometimes does not. States and school districts may want to force children and teachers back into classrooms, but the first week after the winter break saw widespread absenteeism among students and educators – and for that matter, bus drivers. As one parent told Washington Post: “It is frustrating because you see many of the experts on television say that schools are important, schools must be open. And that is right. I completely support that. But no one is doing the things that are necessary to make it happen, which is to reduce the spread of the community. ”
Meanwhile, as omicron spreads, the shortage of staff plaguing retailers and hospitality companies will only get worse. Employment declined as early as December, as COVID cases increased; it does not look better in January. In South Africa, where the omicron was first identified, cases peaked in mid-December, but deaths are still rising three weeks later. Cases in the US have not been reached yet, which means we have a way to go. To date, nearly 850,000 Americans have died; we will almost certainly top 1 million in the spring, if not sooner.
Think about it: One million dead Americans – more than 1.5 Boston deleted from the map, for reference – more than half die after safe, effective vaccines became available. Turn it the way you want, but this is an unqualified failure at all levels.
Some are more guilty than others: the propaganda machine that transformed basic security measures into a totalitarian socialist plot; the cynical politicians – hey, Ron DeSantis – who tried to score “freedom points” by letting thousands die. But the blame extends to those who have decided that treating the pandemic as an ongoing emergency is no longer a viable option. Life will go on. Schoolteachers and overwhelmed health professionals just have to suck it up.
This does not mean that these political questions have easy answers. Classroom instruction is clearly better for most students than distance learning; It is also better for many parents, especially those who do not have the luxury of working from home or whose children are dependent on the free meals offered by the schools. Months of further business restrictions would also be financially catastrophic unless the federal government (read: Joe Manchin) approved trillions of dollars in aid, and most governors would hardly agree in any case. And that does not mean anything about the psychological fatigue that surrounds us.
So we have backed up in a corner. Returning to normal will cost hundreds of thousands of lives – many of which (but most importantly not all) belong to the very people who have spent the last two years arguing that we should ignore the pandemic – and reduce ourselves to hope that inevitably the next variant is still milder instead of the other way around. Few would call this good public health policy, but that is what our policy requires.
The pandemic has clearly illustrated a tension stemming from the founding of the American experiment: balancing individual rights with societal needs. Your right not to get a vaccine, not to wear a mask, to send your unvaccinated, unmasked children to school and force teachers to sit in closed, poorly ventilated rooms with them for eight hours a day, eat and drink and continue as if nothing was wrong; versus my right not to get sick, not to risk a breakthrough infection, not to see my family members get seriously ill, not to worry about my “elective” surgery to remove that mole on my back being exposed to indefinitely because the hospitals are full, to actually get life back to normal once everyone is vaccinated.
It’s about your right to think of yourself versus my right to think of everyone else. Because our political system is fundamentally destroyed, egoism wins. As long as selfishness wins, the pandemic is here to stay.
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