“To everything there is a season.”
Whether your preferred source tends toward Ecclesiastes or '60s band The Byrds these words are well known and apt to many situations. Today’s suggestion is that they also apply to how we best respond to COVID-19, now coming up on two years since it first entered our lives and largely took them over.
For lo those many months, the goal always out on the horizon was to turn this from pandemic to endemic. The latter means not that the virus is gone, but that it rears its persistent head now and then in a more limited and controllable manner.
Many suggest that the sharp decline in the omicron variant is an indication of this transition, though there is much to question in that formulation.
What is the real consequence of living with an endemic disease in our midst instead of through a pandemic? In very practical terms, how does it change daily life? Given that the Greek alphabet has plenty more letters, what does it mean when the next variant breaks loose?
Unfortunately, the first three letters of endemic are “end,” as if to convey a finish line or terminus. What a misnomer. COVID-19 is not departing the scene any more than the flu disappeared after that pandemic wound down in the middle of 1919.
Neither politicians or public health professionals or deniers or wishful thinkers are in charge of the trajectory of this virus.
As has been the case since it escaped Wuhan, the virus dictates its own terms. Its genetic code is resolutely programmed for its survival which depends on growth and mutation.
The best we can hope to achieve with COVID-19 is a kind of uneasy, vigilant, episodic truce.
But such a truce would be a huge step forward from the experience of most over these two years.
While some have opted for resistance and hyper-polarization, the dominant response of these endless months has been marked by high degrees of caution, fear and uncertainty.
As hard as it was to adapt to the pandemic and live through it, it will be equally difficult, if not more so, for many to now adjust to a new world of chronic endemicity.
A Denver-area psychotherapist tells of numerous clients who are struggling as much to emerge out of the pandemic as they were two years ago to accept and retreat into it. She reports an uptick in cases of agoraphobia, the generalized fear that leads its victims to shut off the outside world and withdraw into the safety of home.
In my own house, where my wife and I were very much on the same careful page for the first year before vaccination, our attitudes have diverged a bit since, and especially now as the world opens back up from omicron.
Tracy focuses, not unwisely, on the still-significant risk of vaccinated persons in our age cohort being infected while I pay more attention to the minuscule chance of one of us ending up in an ICU on a ventilator. We are tracking different metrics and playing with different yardsticks.
Plenty of scorn is due those who succumbed to politics, those who dismissed COVID-19 as much of a threat, and those who refused to don a mask even as a courtesy if not a mandate.
For anyone who shunned the vaccine without a compelling medical reason, it is a free country and I wish them well. Even if their selfish decision adds to the pressure on health care workers and sets back any real prospect of herd immunity.
On the flip side, history is unlikely to be kind to those who kept young schoolkids in masks for years on end.
Rather than serving as adhesive and bringing the country together in crisis, the virus has only brought the divisions into ever sharper relief.
Beyond the political fissure, it has also accentuated the class divide, pitting those who work on a laptop versus those whose job requires them to show up in person. It is that particular separation that has given rise to the protests across Canada and coming soon to a U.S. city near you.
For those of us in the laptop brigade, some humility is called for along with a recognition of our economic privilege.
Those demarcation lines of politics and class greatly affect one’s perception of COVID-19 at this juncture and one’s willingness, even eagerness, to reengage.
Per invaluable reports from the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, Democrats are far more worried than Republicans of getting sick from COVID-19 and more willing to make changes to regular activity for the sake of safety.
Given that the unvaccinated are disproportionately Republicans, the irony is inescapable that those lacking inoculation are considerably less concerned about the disease than those with substantial protection. Even as the unvaccinated, mostly Republicans, are way overrepresented among fatalities.
Life is a balancing act and an ongoing process of recalibration. One person’s tolerable risk is another person’s anxious nightmare.
Reasonable caution is worthy. Some may choose to wear masks in grocery stores and on airplanes for years to come. There is value to hand-washing and other habits of improved hygiene. The vast reduction in routine bugs and the winter crud is not to be sneezed at.
But excessive, consuming caution is ill-recommended as a perpetual condition. Fear can be its own narcotic and a tough addiction to break. Two years in, as omicron recedes and spring is on the horizon, and knowing the likelihood of future variant spikes, if not their inevitability, it is time to get out and break free of the virus-induced bubble.
That may not mean living with abandon — but still fully with zest and the confidence that comes with world-class vaccines and manageable risk. Along with an appreciation of our good fortune relative to those who were never able to sit this one out.
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. He writes regularly for ColoradoPolitics and the Gazette newspapers. Reach him at EWS@EricSondermann.com; follow him at @EricSondermann