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Indignity Vol. 2, No. 19: Endemic failure.
PUBLIC HEALTH DEP'T.
Covid-19, America 0
"THANKS TO THE progress we have made in the past year," Joe Biden declared in his State of the Union address, "Covid-19 no longer need control our lives."
What or who gets to be in control of our lives, then? The morning after Biden's address, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the current frontrunner to lead a hypothetical post-Trump Republican Party, berated high school students for having the nerve to wear masks onstage behind him at a public event. "You do not have to wear those masks," he said, jabbing a finger at the teenagers. "I mean, please take them off."
The audience giggled for a moment, then subsided as he kept facing the students and bearing down. "Honestly, it’s not doing anything and we gotta stop with this Covid theater," DeSantis snapped. "So if you want to wear it, fine, but this is, this is ridiculous." Two of the four masked students on camera awkwardly complied, while DeSantis pivoted to make his welcoming remarks.
Here was the new, bipartisan Covid theater: a performance of shaming the people who still acknowledge the pandemic. DeSantis did not inquire whether any of the kids on stage might be pediatric cancer patients, or might be living with vulnerable relatives at home, or might just want an extra layer of protection while standing close to someone who actively recruits antivax workers to their state. He saw a violation of the new consensus, and he lashed out to get the teens in line.
The future of the pandemic will be public health without public solidarity. "After two years that necessitated lockdowns, travel bans, school closures, mask mandates, and nearly a million deaths, nearly every American finally has the tools to protect themselves from this virus," the Democratic polling firm Impact Research wrote in a strategy memo titled "Taking the Win Over Covid-19" on February 24 (that day's death toll: 2,908). The key words—the words that define Covid policy from here on out, and retroactively as well—were "protect themselves." The disease that has so far killed 953,000 people in America is now, officially, an individual problem.
The whole Impact Research memo—written by Molly Murphy, a former Kyrsten Sinema campaign pollster, and Brian Stryker, who ran focus groups for the right-wing Democratic group Third Way to assign blame for the party's losses in Virginia, and published by Punchbowl News—peeled away the veneer of care and thoughtfulness from the unwillingness, among liberal and centrist politicians and press, to stick with Covid-fighting measures. Its focus was how to redefine the Biden administration's catastrophic inability to get the virus under control as a success story, and how to tell the public that the pandemic, currently killing some 1,800 people a day, is over.
"If we focus on how bad things still are and how much worse they could get, we set Democrats up as failures unable to navigate us through this," the memo advised. The message was Franklin Roosevelt's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," inverted into a call to inaction: to talk to the public about the real ongoing dangers, the pollsters wrote, would "cause more harm than we prevent with voters."
What the voters want to hear, the memo argued, is that the disease is not their concern anymore. Americans, in this assessment, "prefer that Covid should be treated as an endemic disease. And that’s what most Americans are dealing with—a disease with fatality rates like the flu—because most of us took the personal responsibility to protect ourselves and our families by getting vaccinated."
Most of us took the personal responsibility to protect ourselves. And now we're done, and if you get sick, it's your own fault.
After so much posturing by anti-mask centrists and liberals about the necessity to balance the risks of the virus against the harms of an overly restrictive response, there was something refreshing about reading the one-sided cynicism of the memo. The Centers for Disease Control had raised the threshold for what defines a severe outbreak, reducing the seriousness of the pandemic by fiat. New York State was removing mask guidelines and vaccine requirements together—a decision that, however steep the downslope of the omicron case-count spike may have been, seemed chiefly pegged to the number March 1.
The real giveaway was that masks and vaccine rules were being taken away together. If the goal were to dial back pandemic precautions in a methodical and targeted way, the vaccine requirements would have stayed in place to help make up for the end of masking—to provide reassurance, especially to the immunocompromised or the parents of underage children, that there would still be one layer of protection in place.
The New York Times editorial board, writing in support of the overall changes, tried to express lingering qualms about the vaccine pullback:
The vaccine requirements, which have been a cornerstone of business reopenings in so much of the city, are harder to justify parting with. They have added an extra layer of protection to indoor activities, which are inherently riskier; they have not been burdensome, and have probably nudged many reluctant people, including tourists, to get vaccinated. More important, requiring vaccines in these settings helps protect vulnerable groups who may feel unsafe dining out or going to the theater, and essential workers, who have no choice but to interact with the public.
But the board was writing in the same defeated tones with which it described Andrew Cuomo's manifest failures as governor, while endorsing him for his inevitable reelection to a third term:
Nonetheless, it is unlikely that New Yorkers will live with such checks forever, and if the caseloads remain low, now is as good a time as any to test the waters. By doing so, New York can be a model and set an example for other cities and states that are ready to lift Covid-19 restrictions, in a spirit of optimism and care.
Perhaps, the Times suggested, New York's mayor, Eric Adams, could "take steps to demonstrate his commitment to ensuring the safety of vulnerable groups, including the elderly and immunocompromised, and make clear that he is using this lull to prepare the city for potential future surges." Maybe! The history of Covid communication says otherwise, though.
When the Times proclaims that we are entering the "next hopeful chapter of this crisis"—or Impact Strategies declares "we CAN safely return to life feeling much more normal"—the public takeaway is that it's time to stop paying attention to the crisis. Last year, the Biden administration tried to tell the nation that things were on track, over the summer, to return to normal in the fall. All that registered was "return to normal"; the existing precautions collapsed with the arrival of warm weather, and the delta variant rolled through the country unimpeded.
The policy is the message, and the message is the policy. Democrats and the mainstream press have made a decision: in the lingering pandemic, given the choice between protecting the health of immunocompromised people or protecting the feelings of assholes, it's time to side with the assholes. Cancer patients will just have to stay home and keep their heads down, so that the world may no longer inconvenience the kind of people who scream at supermarket clerks or attack flight attendants.
THE DESTRUCTIVE MOTH Lymantria dispar, which needed a new name because its old one was an ethnic slur, is now officially the "spongy moth." Indignity still wishes it were "destroyer moth," but admits they're pretty spongy when you stab them with a penknife.