With few healthcare lessons learned, pandemic mandates are being lifted, and we're becoming increasingly resigned to live with the risk.
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More than two years into the pandemic and with weeks of waning cases, the United States has collectively decided—locally and nationally, across the political spectrum—to pull off our masks and take a deep breath. We’ve loosened or abandoned rules on where and when masks must be used, started filling up rooms and halls and spaces cheek to jowl, and hardly heard any outrage about the expiration of Covid funds in Congress. We are a nation desperately seeking an “after” to the pandemic, and happy enough to accept what we receive.
Here in New York, embracing the “after” has meant the end of mask mandates and vaccination verification, encouragement to pack bars and restaurants and arenas and offices, and the relentless insistence from everyone from the governor to the tourism board that we can all return to life as normal. With every new layer of mitigation removed, the skeptical are cajoled and chastised, prodded and primed to believe that we can and should bring our lives from 2019 forward into 2022.
And that would be all well and good, except: The pandemic isn’t over.
Around the world, Covid cases are rising again among allies and adversaries alike. The newest sub-variant, Omicron BA.2, isn’t any deadlier than its older sibling, but can transmit much faster. This feels like good news until one recalls that the high transmission rate of Omicron led to some of the highest death tolls despite vaccination.
So with every passing day, as the will to maintain and enforce pandemic protection wilts, what the United States is choosing to do is tantamount to removing armor on an active battlefield.
It is too exhausting to continue, we, the skeptics, are told. People are worn down by the fears and the limitations and the brutal balancing act that the pandemic has forced them to perform. We cannot keep the armor on, they argue. It is too heavy to carry, and we deserve to run free. There is nothing left to do except resign ourselves to Covid as a fact of life and let it do what it will. Que será, será.
Yet, as sympathetic as that argument is, it ignores that the consequence of surrendering our defenses and embracing denial is to create fertile territory for the next wave of fear, the next unfathomable losses, the next set of insupportable demands that might shatter a fragile society. Returning to “normal” means abandoning those who cannot take chances with catching a devastating respiratory virus, who have vulnerable family and friends, or who have maintained our broken health system at the cost of their own limits. As much as we deserve to run free, we first deserve the strength to carry the weight we are asked to bear.
So often during this pandemic, the local, state and federal governments across the country have told us what we simply must endure without asking or supplying what we needed to endure it. At every level, we received more requirements than relief, more admonishment than assistance. And while many of us have survived despite being left at the mercy of fate, more of us still are facing life amid the ruins of what we once had. All because our system has focused more on retrieving our past than preparing us for the future.
We have, with this brief respite, a chance to shift this paradigm and build not the next wave of the pandemic but the next version of us that can withstand it. We can choose four-day work weeks and upzoning suburbs rather than subsidizing sprawl. We can require better air filtration in densely populated spaces rather than rely on voluntary masking. We can value the care of children enough to ensure that the adults we entrust with the responsibility are safe, well-compensated, and structurally supported, instead of asking providers to prioritize their charges over their own survival. We can demand that if an economy is built to prosper from the deaths of a million citizens, it had better invest the blood money into the lives of the most vulnerable before it reaches the wallets of the most protected.
Most of all, we have an opportunity for elected officials who care more about solving problems than assigning blame to do the work of giving us a future we want to live in. So many people are accepting a return to the normal that was simply because they have not been offered anything better. Our politics has unhelpfully and deliberately conflated mass resignation to the status quo with resistance to change, and has prescribed a dose of do-nothingism as the remedy. We receive promises of a world cast in the future-perfect—that everything we want will have been built back better from the ashes of the past—when what so many really desire is simply a system where this can never happen again.
Because, frankly, the only thing crueler than making us live through two years of a pandemic is making us repeat it.
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