Facing The Third Year Of The Pandemic
Depending on where you are in the world, you’re into, or about to start, your third year of the pandemic. How should we approach this anniversary and the future beyond it?
I’ve been reading my tweets from two years ago. It’s eye-opening to see what mattered back then.
At the start of February 2020, I was sad about my favourite daily planner, the lovely JIYU-style, being discontinued. I feared it would “turn my world upside down”.
My favourite “JIYU-Style” planner from @sannopub looks like it has been discontinued for 2020. My world’s been turned upside down!
— Fernando Gros (@fernandogros) February 3, 2020
Of course, something else turned all our lives upside down. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, it does feel things have changed.
Turning Towards The Next Challenges
We’re no longer facing a mysterious threat. There’s plenty of knowledge available about the disease – how it’s transmitted, evolves, affects the body, can be treated – and the cost of recovery. We have vaccines, masks, tests, and a sense of how important good ventilation is to making indoor spaces safer.
But it’s not all good news. A lot of people aren’t vaccinated, booster programmes are slowing, masks have become politicized or poorly utilized, the airborne risk hasn’t been well communicated, and the ferocity of the sickness is often downplayed, as are the long-term effects. There’s more impatient and wishful thinking that just wants the pandemic to end according to some sort of convenient human timeline.
Sometimes, it feels like the world has gone a little crazy from spending so much time locked inside staring at the internet. Speaking about this recently, the director-general of security at the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation explained that the pandemic has increased exposure to “…extremist messaging, misinformation and conspiracy theories.”
The internet is the world’s single most potent and powerful incubator of extremism. Online radicalisation is nothing new, but COVID-19 sent it into overdrive. Isolated individuals spent more time online, exposed to extremist messaging, misinformation and conspiracy theories.
— ASIO (@ASIOGovAu) February 9, 2022
Writing in The Atlantic, Ed Yong explained the risk presented by the Omicron variant as less risky for us as individuals, but riskier for us as a society. This feels true about the pandemic as a whole right now. We can get vaccinated and boosted, wear high-quality masks and face very low risks. But we also live in societies and don’t always mind our collective risks.
Here in the UK, for example, the government is moving towards not reporting numbers of cases or hospitalizations and not asking people who have the disease to stay home, making every social interaction more like a journey into the unknown.
The Danger Of Being Stuck
“When did you settle on your current routine?”
“By early – maybe mid – April 2020. For a long time it served me well.”
“And when did you realize it wasn’t working for you anymore?”
“About February or March 2021.”
This moment in a therapy session a few months ago crystallized something important. I was stuck in a routine that had kept me safe in the face of fearful uncertainty. Except now the way I’d adapted to a crisis had become the pattern of my life.
Last month, I got on a plane for the first time in nearly two years to visit my daughter in the US. Just like my last flights before the lockdowns started, I was fully masked all the way. So, too, were my fellow passengers. And we had tests, extra paperwork and digital pings to tell us if we’d potentially been exposed.
Washington D.C. was hit hard by Omicron over Christmas. But everyone there was masked up, with many wearing proper N95 and KN95 respirators. My daughter’s college requires students to be vaccinated. Apparently fewer than 20 students are not. All students have to be tested every two weeks or else their student card stops working, meaning they can’t enter buildings, shop on campus, or borrow books.
The trip was the first time since March 2020 that I’d visited a cafe, or gallery, or any kind of physical store. I felt safe – largely because everyone around was also trying to be safe.
It was eye-opening.
The Pandemic Is Not Over
There’s a chorus of commentators who want to pretend the pandemic is over. But it isn’t, and hoping it will be within a convenient timeframe won’t make it so.
This tweet reminds me that, if anything, we’re barely halfway through the journey. We don’t know all the long-term effects of this disease, either on the bodies who experienced it, or the societies that sometimes entered a cold civil war over it.
And, collectively, we haven’t really paused to grieve.
We’ve started to hear a lot about the disease becoming endemic. Like the famous meme, that word doesn’t really mean what many people think it means.
A micro-linguistics lesson:
Pandemic, epidemic, & endemic are words for diseases in populations, so they all contain “demic” which means people (like “demographics”).
Pan- means all
Epi- means upon
En- means within
En-demic. Not End-emic.
Within the people. Always a problem.
— Dr Ellie Murray, ScD 🇨🇦 (@EpiEllie) January 24, 2022
Along with the misleading “Omicron is mild” chorus, there’s been an even more misleading suggestion that COVID will naturally evolve to be less dangerous. That’s a big maybe. It might – or it might not.
The New Normal Revisited
A few days after returning to London, I was pinged by the NHS, which meant someone on my flight back, or the drive home, had tested positive. After a couple of PCR tests and a slew of rapid tests, it was clear I was okay (and thankful for having worn my N95 throughout the flight and the trip home from the airport).
We can probably expect 2022 will continue to be like this. We can do things we used to do, taking risks that we can negotiate, but to a large extent the experience will depend on the behaviour of others. For some, it might be “like the old days”; for many, it won’t.
The lingering question is how will we cope and what happens as more and more people get tired of this? Recent articles in the New York Times and Washington Post explore how the 1918 pandemic didn’t end in a day and, in fact, a great deal of suffering continued even after people acted like it was over.
Living With Risk
I’ve been in three car accidents. Only one of them put me in hospital. I could argue that makes car accidents pretty mild, given the number of car trips I’ve made in my life, and that it therefore wouldn’t make sense to have lots of rules and precautions around getting in a car. Except that kind of argument would be insane. Driving a car is risky, and all sorts of rules, customs and technology silently make it much, much safer.
Lots of things involve risk. But we do them safely because of all the work, most of which we don’t do ourselves, that makes them safer.
Take skiing. That’s pretty risky. But skiers today benefit from all sorts of safety-enhancing technology in their equipment. Add to that all the on-mountain work of preparing the ski fields, monitoring the weather, planting signposts, and other careful maintenance. That’s all before you even start taking lessons or adding your own knowledge to the equation.
I Want to Try, But…
On that trip to D.C., I visited an art gallery. At first, walking though the “Countervailing Theory” exhibition by Toyin Ojih Odutola at the Hirschhorn Museum felt odd. I noticed my body moving too fast. I was out of step with the tempo required to take in the work. As I slowed down, I didn’t just see more in the pictures, I felt something welling up inside myself – the awe, the joy, the unsettling of comfortable expectations that comes from experiencing art in person.
I was moved, and I wanted more.
Now, back in London, I’m not sure. Going out feels like climbing into a small boat to sail into a storm. Sure, I’d probably survive. I’m vaccinated and boosted and not shy about wearing an N95. Yes, I’ll get mocked and harassed. But I’ve lived with bullies my whole life anyway.
Still, I find myself asking – is it worth it?
I’ve waited so long for this great wave to finally wash over us, I now find myself asking, “Why not wait a little longer?”