An illustration of work desks with computers on it and a hospital bed in the middle.

Jennifer Kosig, aurielaki/istock, DAME

Work Culture

Jennifer Kosig, aurielaki/istock, DAME

Omicron Is Thriving Off America’s Obsession With Work

Our culture presses us to work through illness, and it’s the forced choice to clock in that will define the consequences of the pandemic’s next stage.

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Sometime in mid-December, tens of thousands of Americans began to develop sore throats and runny noses but assured themselves, in this era of pandemic panic, that it was “just a cold,” only to learn that: Surprise! The Omicron variant often presents as the common cold. Untold numbers of them had already spread the virus far and wide by the time they learned they’d contracted Covid. A lot of them, and the people they came in contact with, died.

As the omicron surge became a tsunami in the final weeks of 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bless its heart, tried to be helpful. It was the holiday season and Americans ached to gather with loved ones, so a number of exceptionally talented, trained, and well-meaning experts began issuing guidelines that were often indecipherable, useless, or both. Go ahead and gather, we were told, but crack a few windows. Make sure everyone on the guest list is vaccinated, boosted, and not sick (and, presumably, not lying.) Keep masking, but only if location, number of participants, and guests’ vax/booster status (and/or comorbidities!) warrants.

Two days after Christmas, recommended isolation times were halved. The CDC told us that “people with COVID-19 should isolate for 5 days and if they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving… follow that by 5 days of wearing a mask when around others…. For people who are unvaccinated or are more than six months out from their second mRNA dose (or more than 2 months after the J&J vaccine) and not yet boosted, CDC now recommends quarantine for 5 days followed by strict mask use for an additional 5 days…. If a 5-day quarantine is not feasible, it is imperative that an exposed person wear a well-fitting mask at all times when around others for 10 days.”

I nearly woo-hoo’ed when I heard an infectious disease expert say on NPR that “there’s no more colds. Right now, if you’ve got a cold, it’s COVID until proven otherwise.” Clarity! Can we send some to the CDC?

Yet all this—the confusion, shifting guidelines, horrific Covid death toll (870,098 as of this writing), even the phrase “just a cold”—reflects something much older and deeper than our once-in-a-century pandemic: We should never have been going about our business with “just a cold” in the first place. Even when it really was just a cold.

Americans are trained from birth to dismiss vulnerability and illness, to neither rest on weekends nor, if we’re fortunate enough to have sick days, call in sick. Whether it’s the vaunted “Protestant work ethic,” 21st-century grind culture, the nature of American capitalism, parents who had it “harder,” toxic masculinity in its many expressions, or elementary school perfect attendance awards, it’s impressed upon us from all sides that our health and well-being are never as important as showing up and producing. In the American mind, even the act of giving birth doesn’t warrant downtime. You’ve got a cold? Fuck you.

I could argue for days that not only does everyone deserve kindness, but that, furthermore, we can be vulnerable—witness how many of the mighty have fallen to a killer so small you need a special mask to effectively stop it—but honestly, if American society were open to such an argument, I probably wouldn’t need to make it.

So how about this: By pressuring, shaming, and forcing us to work sick, we’re aiding and abetting the spread of disease and slowing down production.

Imagine the following scenario which, while hypothetical, has likely found real-life expression in hundreds of thousands of cases over recent months:

A couple celebrate their anniversary at a local restaurant. They’re vaxxed and boosted, so they feel safe. Their server, on the other hand, doesn’t have health insurance or sick days, so though he managed to get vaccinated, he’s not boosted. He recently babysat for his sister, a teacher back in the classroom—her kids’ school is back on remote learning because of an outbreak. She and the kids just tested positive, and he woke up feeling crappy, but he’s pretty sure it’s just a cold. And he can’t afford to miss any more shifts.

The next day, the couple (both of whom were pressured by higher-ups to stop working from home) attend maskless meetings. Everyone’s really sick of masking, and anyway, they’re all vaccinated. They both wake up coughing a few days later but continue going to work because they’re pretty sure it’s just a cold; come the weekend, they’re googling “breakthrough COVID” and scrambling to find at-home tests. Now: How many other people got sick because none of those people felt they had the right to be sick, take care of their kids, or stay safe? How many systems came to a grinding halt?

Multiply all that by every actual cold, case of the flu, stomach bug, or any of the other communicable diseases we carry. Consider that a person with a low-grade fever might not be able to think clearly, or, if they’re not contagious but post-surgery, that the painkillers they need just to stand up straight might slow reaction times. Consider that a person who recently gave birth to another human literally cannot function for weeks on end as they did just prior to their delivery. Screw “time to bond”—the postpartum body desperately needs to convalesce.

Now imagine, if you will, a world of universal health care; paid sick days not only mandated by law but encouraged by managers; parental leave of at least three months; easily accessible systems for prescription delivery and transportation to the doctor; and the shared understanding that “just a cold” means you should take at least a day to rest.

When people have no choice but to privilege their job over a cold or broken leg—when they’re forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and go back to work two weeks later (not least because the hospital bills will bankrupt them if they don’t get the promotion they’ve been working overtime for)—you get an economy that’s dependent on the halt, the lame, and the contagious, and a nation in which the experts on disease control feel compelled to tell everybody that they can go back to work after only five days of isolation with a deadly virus, and if their boss won’t let them do that, for the love of God, please wear a mask. One wonders if the CDC knows that some bosses won’t let you wear a mask, either.

The best time for Americans to develop the kind of compassion and sociological imagination that make room for the consequences born of the intersection of lives and events was decades ago; March 2020 would have been good, too. The next-best time, though, is now. If you don’t give a rat’s ass about your neighbor or that guy at the drive-through, consider your own health and the country’s bottom line. “Just a cold” was never just a cold.

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