Wishful Thinking on COVID is as Dangerous as Prior Episodes of DenialRoundup
tags: public health, pandemics, medical history, COVID-19, epidemiology
Nation public health correspondent Gregg Gonsalves is the codirector of the Global Health Justice Partnership and an associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.
We’ve entered a new phase in the Covid-19 pandemic, which we can call bipartisan, unilateral surrender. From liberal and conservative pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle to the celebrity docs who show up on cable news or in supermarket magazines, we’re being told SARS-CoV-2 is endemic now—which of course has nothing to do with the technical term, but has become popular shorthand for “it’s over.” We’re vaxxed-and-done now and we should be allowed, with no more mask requirements or other efforts to mitigate spread, to resume our pre-pandemic lives with the “urgency of normal.”
I’ve spent two years railing about the irresponsibility and cruelty of many Republicans and their cavalier response to the pandemic, endangering millions with policies destined to simply make people sick: suggesting that vaccination and freedom are incompatible concepts, that grandparents were willing to die for the economy—the whole horrible litany of lies and misinformation churned out by the party and its proxies.
But now it’s different. People who were scrupulous about following public health advice in 2020 are now too tired, frustrated, and fed-up to care. Those still masking, doing some social distancing, trying to do their part to stem the tide of the pandemic are being treated as if they are holdouts in a war that is long over. Or risk-averse scaredy-cats, ridiculed as out-of-touch liberal elites by commentators on the right like Ross Douhtat; as deluded, too-far-to-the-left zealots by centrist pundits like David Leonhardt. Both of whom write for that touchstone of very serious people everywhere, The New York Times, so it must be true.
Except the pandemic is not over by a long shot. We’ve been seeing 1,000 deaths a day in the United States for months now; over the past few weeks, as Omicron deaths catch up to the vast number of infections diagnosed weeks earlier, we’ve had far more than that. The last day of January saw over 2,500 deaths in this country. Hospitals are still reeling in many places, and both health care and public health workers on the front line are just burned out and losing their shit. And that word—endemic—which in epidemiological terms connotes a pathogen that has stabilized at a long-term equilibrium in a population—hasn’t really arrived yet, with the pandemic still raging across the globe, even as Omicron numbers start to decline in some places. Then there’s the belief—now popular in the press—that Omicron is the “last” variant of any real concern. We’ll all have been exposed to the virus or vaccinated against it soon enough, and any subsequent strains that may wash over us will be mild, no worse than the flu or the common cold.
I’m not suggesting that we need to be on a state of high alert forever. But we need to shape Covid-19 policies according to the data, not by wishful thinking among people who should know better. To sound the all-clear now or imply that we can in the next few weeks is presumptuous at best. If we want to learn from history, we can simply look at the 20th century’s most fearsome pandemics for guidance. John Barry, the historian of the great influenza of 1918, reminds us that the deadly fourth wave of that catastrophe only occurred in 1920, when millions had already been exposed to the virus, when the lethality of the third wave was subsiding, most people had let down their guard, and no public official was interested in pushing mitigation efforts in the face of the indifference and weariness of a nation. Barry also reminds us that “natural immunity” and vaccination after the influenza pandemics in the late 1950s didn’t stop the virus from cutting a large swath of death in 1960 when it returned with a vengeance. A similar scenario played out in Europe in 1968 and 2009 flu pandemics, when, after a first round of infections and vaccinations, influenza’s second wave crested and washed over the weary continent.
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