Is Your Pandemic Over Yet?
NEW YORK TIMES blogger David Leonhardt used his morning post Tuesday to complain that certain people refuse to change their attitude toward the Covid pandemic:
For the past two years, large parts of American society have decided harming children was an unavoidable side effect of Covid-19. And that was probably true in the spring of 2020, when nearly all of society shut down to slow the spread of a deadly and mysterious virus.
But the approach has been less defensible for the past year and a half, as we have learned more about both Covid and the extent of children’s suffering from pandemic restrictions.
Leonhardt was lamenting the various forms of distress, disruption, and academic difficulty that children experienced during school closures and remote instruction. Covid, he allowed, could still cause "hospitalization or worse"—"worse" here meaning "death"—for unvaccinated or immunocompromised adults, but "many communities in the U.S. have not really grappled with the trade-off." These communities have failed at "minimizing the damage that Covid does to society."
Which communities are these? Leonhardt has been returning to some version of this blog over and over through the pandemic. The virus keeps mutating, but the argument stays the same. "Eventually, the costs of organizing our lives around the virus will exceed the benefits," he wrote this past November. "In some cases, we may have already reached that point." In May 2021: "Covid has so thoroughly dominated our thinking over the past 14 months that many people continue to focus on Covid-related issues—even highly unusual or uncommon ones—to the exclusion of everything else."
Meanwhile, even in famously cautious New York, actual people and institutions have been adapting to changing circumstances. Who are the people who are stuck on 2020 policies at this point? Where are the thoughtless lockdowns happening? Here and there you see a report about a school system considering four-day weeks or something similar, but overall, the way life has been organized for months now is that restaurants have been open, shows have been going on, and kids have been back in school.
My own kids, in New York, have been going to school full-time since September—except the last two days before the holiday break, when we kept them home because we were getting ready to travel to see older relatives for Christmas, and the omicron variant outbreak was clearly spreading out of control. They have gone to school concerts, hung out indoors with friends, played kickball, and flown on airplanes.
True, they mostly do these things with masks on, but a mask is not a Zoom call. Yet Leonhardt rolled the 2021-22 school year in with the 2020-21 one into one great crisis of supposed policy inflexibility. "Most schools have stayed open this week, but many have canceled sports, plays and other activities," he wrote. "Some districts have closed schools, for a day or more, despite evidence that most children struggle to learn remotely."
This was pundit malpractice, jamming an old argument into a new situation while accusing other people of ideological rigidity. December was not like November, and January so far is not like December. But people who've staked their identities on not getting carried away about Covid cannot adjust to the new facts. While Leonhardt was holding forth on the cruel irrationality of suggesting temporary school closings, one-third of students were not showing up for the first day of classes after break. The MTA was suspending the B, W, and Z trains for the week because so many transit workers were sick that they couldn't come up with enough train crews.
Should the MTA roll empty trains out onto the tracks anyway, in the spirit of getting back to normal? While the let's-not-be-unreasonable faction has been lecturing everyone about how we all must learn to live with Covid, normal people have been busy figuring out what it takes to live with Covid—adjusting to easier or stricter mask orders as the case numbers fall or rise, getting booster shots, switching from surgical masks to KN95s, self-testing after traveling or before seeing people. Maybe now, with tests in short supply and hospitals overstretched, it means shutting down for a week or two. That doesn't mean going back to 2020. It means facing up to 2022.
My three kids did online school (middle and high) for a year while we travelled the world looking to learn if everyone was as crazy as Trump-electing America. Then they went virtual again during the pandemic. All did fine the first go-round. The oldest had trouble during the second, while trying to complete his second year of college. The two in public secondary school made it without suffering educationally, but they sure missed seeing their friends. I feel terrible that the crappy internet service available to the rural students around here made it much more difficult for them, but at the same time, there are on-line homeschooling companies advertising on TV with the word "rural" in the product's name. Our state is fine with pushing virtual learning if it weakens the public school system, while at the same time railing against virtual schooling along with masks and vaccine mandates if it interferes with "freedom." Maybe Leonhardt should spend more time looking into parochial school vouchers, thinning teacher ranks and the effects of bigotry and grinding poverty on the quality of learning among our school age children. The pandemic will pass someday, but those degradations are built in for the long haul and they're political, not epidemiological.