America shrugged: As long as selfishness wins, the pandemic is here to stay 

click to enlarge People protesting COVID-19 measures in Lansing in 2020. - STEVE NEAVLING
  • Steve Neavling
  • People protesting COVID-19 measures in Lansing in 2020.

Here we go again.

COVID cases are through the roof — about 680,000 a day, officially, and that’s an undercount. Testing can’t keep up. ICUs are nearing capacity. The CDC’s quarantine guidelines are inscrutable. And now, death counts are rising, more than 1,500 every day.

Sure, the omicron variant appears “milder” than its predecessors, particularly for those who’ve been fully vaccinated and boosted. But 12% of Americans over the age of 65 — those most susceptible to severe disease — are not fully vaccinated. Their populations are heavily concentrated in rural parts of the country; omicron has so far torn through major urban centers like New York City and Boston. Nearly 40% of the U.S. population isn’t completely vaccinated, either. In other words, it’s going to get worse.

In red states that long ago decided to wish the pandemic away, both cases and hospitalizations have skyrocketed: 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 in, the country — Democrats and Republicans alike — has decided we’re over the pandemic. Schools are open. So are bars and restaurants — in some states, with mask “mandates” that let you remove your mask as soon as you eat or drink, rendering the exercise pointless. And the Supreme Court looks likely to invalidate the Biden administration’s vaccinate-or-test mandate for employees of large companies, due to conservative justices’ ideological eagerness to hobble the “administrative state” (and Justice Alito’s anti-vax 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 winter break saw widespread absences among students and educators — and, for that matter, bus drivers. As one parent told the Washington Post: “It’s frustrating because you see a lot of the experts on TV saying schools are important, schools should be open. And that’s true. I completely support that. But nobody is doing the things necessary to have that happen, which is to lower community spread.”

Meanwhile, as omicron spreads, the staffing shortages bedeviling retailers and hospitality businesses will only worsen. Hiring already slowed in December as COVID cases mounted; things don’t look better for January. In South Africa, where omicron was first identified, cases peaked in mid-December, but deaths are still rising three weeks later. Cases in the U.S. haven’t crested yet, which means we’ve got a ways to go. To date, nearly 850,000 Americans have died; we’ll almost certainly top 1 million this spring, if not sooner.

Think about that: One million Americans dead — more than 1.5 Bostons wiped off the map, for reference — more than half dying after safe, effective vaccines became available. Spin it however you want, but this is an unmitigated failure at every level.

Some are more culpable than others: the propaganda machine that turned basic safety precautions into a totalitarian socialist plot; the cynical politicians — hello, Ron DeSantis — who tried to score “freedom” points by allowing thousands to die. But the culpability extends to those who’ve decided that treating the pandemic like an ongoing emergency is no longer a viable option. Life will go on. Schoolteachers and overwhelmed health care workers will just have to suck it up.

That’s not to say these policy questions have easy answers. In-class education is clearly better for most students than remote learning; it’s also better for a lot of parents, especially those who don’t have the luxury of working from home or whose kids rely on the free meals schools provide. Months of additional business restrictions would also be economically cataclysmic unless the federal government (read: Joe Manchin) approved trillions more dollars in aid, and most governors would be unlikely to go along in any event. And that’s to say nothing of the psychological weariness enveloping us.

So we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. Returning to normal will cost hundreds of thousands of lives — many (but, importantly, not all) of whom belong to the very people who’ve spent the last two years arguing that we should ignore the pandemic — and reduce us to hoping that the inevitable next variant is milder still instead of the other way around. Few people would call this good public health policy, but it’s what our politics demands.

The pandemic has starkly illustrated a tension that dates to the founding of the American experiment: balancing individual rights with community needs. Your right not to get a vaccine, not to wear a mask, to send your unvaccinated, unmasked kids to school and force teachers to sit in confined, poorly ventilated rooms with them for eight hours a day, eat and drink and carry on as if nothing was wrong; versus my right to not get sick, to not risk a breakthrough infection, to not see my family members get seriously ill, to not worry about my “elective” surgery to remove that mole on my back being postponed indefinitely because hospitals are full, to actually have life return 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 broken, selfishness is winning. As long as selfishness wins, the pandemic is here to stay.

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