One More Time: What Do You Want Us to Do About Covid that We Aren't Doing Already?
stop telling me how to feel and start telling me what you want us to do
Due to some technical issues this post was published and then unpublished. Also comments weren’t turned on and now are. Also please check out Ryan Zickgraf’s review of The Medium is the Message, a runner-up in our book review contest.
Years ago, when the appropriate stance on Syria was still an argument that raged within the far-left, I was often frustrated by a strange dynamic in the conversation: there was a faction that would frequently express dissatisfaction with those who opposed US intervention while opposing intervention themselves. They recognized that a US invasion would be disastrous, but they felt that those of us who publicly opposed such an invasion were too glib and unserious. They wanted the United States to Do Something, and they wanted the rest of us to want that too.
I was among those who believed that there was no good action the United States could take, other than accepting as many refugees as we could. I had some sympathy for the people demanding that we Do Something in Syria, given the immense human costs of that war. But as happens in these cases they became addicted to feelings and attitudes over substance. They were relentless in saying that all of us on the left had to regard Assad as a monster (which he clearly was) and that anti-imperialists who minimized Assad’s crimes were deluded and wrong (which they clearly were). The trouble was that, for one, the number of people who made excuses for Assad’s crimes were very few even within the far-left; I am connected to a very largely network of people way out on the radical left fringe of American politics and I couldn’t name more than a handful of “pro-Assad leftists.” Second, the Do Something crowd always demanded more, even as they agreed that an American invasion would be senseless and destructive. And they were very, very vocal that the rest of us were inherently unserious for not being angry enough about the Syrian regime’s crimes.
I articulate that last sentence carefully, because ultimately it really was a matter of emotions, of feeling the right way. My position was pretty simple: yes, Assad is a monster, but American intervention in Middle Eastern conflict has been a series of horrors, many of the forces arrayed against Assad seemed like very bad actors themselves, and as always the law of unintended consequences ruled. Libya's last decade would seem to prove as much. So what else could be done, other than sending aid and accepting refugees? Sometimes these “third way” types (angry towards non-interventionists but stopping short of calling for full-scale intervention) would propose actions like air strikes or no-fly zones, but advocacy for these things would always be provisional and half-hearted, no doubt because none of them ultimately would have saved Syria. But then, after a certain point policy became irrelevant.
What they really wanted was for other people to feel harder. It was not enough to acknowledge that Assad was a cruel dictator; we were all expected to constantly emote about it, to rage publicly about it, to throb with anger that the wrong kind of leftists were supposedly making excuses for Assad, even if only by saying that we shouldn't invade. It was not enough to express sympathy for the innocent Syrian victims; we were expected to constantly rend our garments online in a way that showed that really, truly cared. There was such a palpable sense that these people needed to have their own emotional and affective response to the crisis validated. In some limited sense I knew where they were coming from. But “feel more” is not a plan, and given that the United States has troops in Syria to this day, they were potentially lending inadvertent support to a very dangerous cause themselves. All in the pursuit of… what?
I have been having constant flashbacks to that micro-debate in recent months, only now the debate is about as big as it could get. Again and again, I see people (almost always but not exclusively liberals) who insist that Covid is a bigger deal than people are making of it, that “COVID IS NOT OVER!,” that it’s shameful the way people are trying to go on with their lives, that the next variant is the big one and it’s going to blow past the vaccines and fill the hospitals (these are supposedly pro-vaccine people BTW) and then we’ll be sorry, that someday a real rain will come and wipe this scum off the streets…. They hate hearing the objective fact that vaccines have decoupled case rates from hospitalizations and deaths, they hate hearing that a great deal of data suggests that Omicron is less deadly than Delta, they hate hearing that a huge percentage of cases are entirely asymptomatic, they hate hearing that most symptomatic cases of the virus are and always have been mild, they hate being told that many of our rituals like six-foot social distancing are security theater…. Mostly, though, they hate that some of us are trying to move on from Covid, emotionally, even as we continue to comply with what the government is saying are best practices.
I will repeat myself: while the odds are very long that I could come down with a case of Covid-19 that could force me to be hospitalized, they are non-zero. I acknowledge that I face risk from the coronavirus, including the risk of death. However, I do not spend my life in fear of unlikely deadly events, as that’s an impoverished way to live. And if the point is actions rather than feelings, I have no idea what these people want someone like me to do that I haven’t already done. Mask, vaccinated, boost, test when symptomatic, quarantine when positive, check. I’m on board, I’ve been on board, and so have many people who also take Covid seriously without allowing it to entirely derail their lives. So what next? I think the honest answer is that they want us to panic, to panic like they’re panicking.
I can think of three possibilities when it comes to what people want us to do, practically, in real-world terms, actual actions to take. The first, I’m 100% on board with: more investment in drug discovery and medical research to combat the virus and better coordination among those who are doing this work, an Apollo program or Manhattan Project for fighting coronaviruses. Great idea. Other than that all I hear about are more lockdowns and vaccine mandates, neither of which would work.
First, strict lockdowns would be politically ruinous for the Democrats. I have made this basic point in the past that the country has voted with its feet, that most people are ready to move on as much as they can and that this is true whether that is the right thing to want or not, that most people are not neurotic urbanite college graduates who want the world to stop again. If the Democrats become nationally perceived as the party of perpetual lockdowns the party will face catastrophic political consequences, and then the Republicans will be in charge of pandemic policy and it'll all be a big disaster anyway.
Second, strict lockdowns are not possible. Not outside of a truly authoritarian country. For one thing, “essential workers” are a whole hell of a lot of professions. Some people who are considered essential and thus won’t lock down include
Doctors, nurses, EMTs, and other medical staff
Cooks and chefs
Farmers and others involved in growing and raising food
Electrical, gas, and telecommunications workers
Grocery, pharmacy, and retail workers
Transportation workers who work with planes, trains, boats, and automobiles
Truckers, warehouse workers, longshoremen, and stevedores
Server technicians and IT staff who maintain our internet infrastructure
All manner of workers in local, state, and federal governments
Support staff for all of the above
And many more I’ve left out. So you’re immediately talking about millions and millions of people who could not lock down even if a new national lockdown was a realistic possibility, which it is not. Let us mutually agree that we won’t stop basic health and safety services, medical care, and food production during even the strictest lockdowns. How about more ancillary essential roles? Do the people who want to lock down again want to experience a lockdown without delivery food or internet access, to name just two aspects of quarantine life they many consider indispensable? No. No, I don't think they'd like that. I can tell you the country certainly wouldn’t tolerate that.
Also, strict enforcement wouldn’t be just politically destructive but pragmatically very difficult. You’re talking about a level of society-wide surveillance and punishment that would be almost unprecedented in American history. You’d have to hire more cops to enforce it… and they would be out there catching coronavirus if you did. And if you wanted to attach penalties that would actually keep people in their homes, you’d have to send some of them to jail, where… they’d catch coronavirus. If you didn’t attach real criminal penalties, people would just violate the lockdown, and we’re again running in place. There would also be serial noncompliance from law enforcement, which isn’t exactly made up of Covid maximalists.
Most importantly, we don’t know that the lockdowns worked. We really, truly do not know that. We do know that they tanked the economy and that they sucked.
True universal vaccine mandates? As much of an advocate as I am of vaccination, I can’t personally go there. Holding someone down and forcibly injecting them with anything (“grab and jab,” as some enthusiasts call it) seems like crossing a certain Rubicon for our society to me. More importantly, it just wouldn’t work, and not in the cool way anti-vaxxers think. Like, it wouldn’t look like the world after Skynet with the Terminators stalking around with syringe fingers but then Brett Weinstein sends Kyle Reese back in time to save the day. Instead there would be an absolute deluge of lawsuits the minute any universal mandate was formalized as policy and it would be years before anybody would be forcibly inoculated, and the Supreme Court is about as left-leaning as the town elders from Footloose these days. In plenty of places it would be the dopey sheriff coming to a house and saying “Now Cletus, we talked about this,” and the unvaccinated guy saying “now Jethro I done told you I weren’t gonna do it!” and sheriff Cletus is like “well now listen here, I’ll tell you what, I’ll be back here in a fortnight, and if you ain’t vaxxed by then, I’m issuing a citation”…. You can’t just spin up authoritarian social structures on a dime. This country is not equipped to enforce a sudden universal vaccination mandate. It’s just not.
Of course the real core to all of this is that there’s this group of anti-vaxxers and their behavior is inexplicable and enraging. I get that. But displacement isn’t helpful. Educated liberals are mad at them, but they don’t have many anti-vaxxers in their orbit, so they’re instead getting mad at those of us who are vaccinated and want others to be too but who refuse to let fear of coronavirus dominate our lives. And that’s just not helpful for anyone. It’s just acting out, just emotional attention-seeking.
I beg of everyone to get vaccinated and boosted, I pray the new therapeutics work as initial trials suggested, I hope better versions of both are soon forthcoming, and I mourn the dead, which include some people who are very close to me. But I will not panic. I will not live in fear. And I suspect that this is at the heart of all of it - for complex sociological reasons, are elites are made up of people who suffer from anxiety and insecurity at vastly disproportionate rates, and they go through life needing their own feelings to be validated by everyone else. This is very scary for them, and if it’s not scary for some of the rest of us, they experience that as implied judgment. But I’m not judging them for being scared. That’s a perfectly legitimate attitude to have in the middle of all of this. I am judging them for insisting that the rest of us be scared too. Because being scared never saved a single life.
I ask that you consider this possibility: that aside from the vaccines and gradual improvements to treatment, there was never anything much we could have done to change the course of the pandemic. I ask you to consider the possibility that from the beginning, the only solutions were solutions brought to us by medical technology. I look at all of these people, shaking with anger at the unseriousness of their countrymen and incensed that we didn’t stop it, and I wonder how they could possibly be so confident that we ever had a chance to do so. It’s a highly infectious respiratory virus and we live in an unprecedentedly interconnected world, guys. It grew to epidemic proportions before it even took firm hold in the United States. Many have said, for decades, that the way the world has shrunk thanks to transportation technology and looser borders makes pandemics of this size inevitable. It is entirely possible that all of our mitigation efforts, aside from vaccination and treatment, have just been a way to look busy, that the universe decided that a terrible disease was going to sweep through the world and kill millions of people. It’s entirely possible that you get vaccinated and hope for the best and that’s it. It’s out of our hands.
Have you considered the fact that sometimes the world is simply out of your control?
I suppose one irony here is that in sensitive to this issue because I'm the kind of person who's profoundly overexposed, in terms of proportion, to the most Covid-anxious 5%.
I think it's more than anxiety for some. I think the pandemic has given some people a sense of...importance? Momentousness? Gravity? A reason for being alive? They don't want the pandemic to stop being the very serious thing that occupies our thoughts and directs our actions, because they'd have to go back to a state where very little seemed important and the passing winds directed their actions. Basically I think there's so much ennui out there that many people may prefer a legible, dramatic pandemic nightmare to live through, a story to be a character in, than just, like, life.
Others going back about their business, "not taking the pandemic seriously enough," not having the right emotions, is absolutely devastating to the project of "maintaining this sense of emergency because it's inherently satisfying". That's why I think the ire is directed there.