We Will Never Get “Back to Normal”
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Two years! Y’all, it’s been two god damn years. Next week, it will have been exactly two years since a friend of mine shared a text she got from an epidemiologist at the CDC recommending she stock up on food and basic supplies. I decided that was reasonable, went to Costco, and that was I think the last time I went into an indoor public place without a mask on. Fun!
In the time since, I’ve done everything “right.” Back then the experts suspected COVID was mostly spread via surfaces, so in addition to wearing a mask I also washed my hands a lot and used alcohol sanitizer when I couldn’t access soap and water. I ordered groceries online and left the nonperishables in the trunk of my car overnight and wiped down the stuff that had to go right in the fridge. I canceled plans to see friends. I canceled a trip to Hawaii. My boyfriend started working full-time from our 1-bedroom apartment. I encouraged others to do the same, reassured people on one side of me that this was not an overreaction while informing people on the other side of me that they shouldn’t panic and assume they’re going to die if they don’t fill their houses with toilet paper. It felt like I was walking a tightrope.
As more information came in, I stopped wiping down groceries and started wearing better masks, dropping my bandanas and scarves for multi-layered and filtered cloth masks and the N95s I was saving for fire season.
My boyfriend became my husband because, well, fuck it, right? Life is short. And in late 2020 we bought a house to have more space to both work from home full-time. We started seeing friends again, but only outside at a safe distance.
We got vaccinated as soon as we could, and then enjoyed more outdoor social engagements with other vaccinated friends. When cases dropped here in California we hung out with vaccinated friends inside without masks, and we even traveled to Disneyland, masking inside on rides but going without outdoors. Then Delta hit so we holed up again. When cases dropped again we traveled again, but then omicron showed up so we started testing before and after seeing friends, and stopped traveling. We got our boosters as soon as we were eligible.
My point in going through all this is to show how my partner and I have followed expert guidance as best we could for the entirety of this pandemic, starting even before it was considered a pandemic here in the US. While many Trump conservatives would accuse me of being overly cautious, we did actually take risks here and there when we felt it was low enough, like traveling and hanging out with friends inside without masks. But when the risks increased along with cases and variants, we increased our caution.
That, along with a bit of luck, means that we have not once been infected with COVID, meaning we also have not once passed it on to anyone who is immunocompromised or otherwise at risk of being greatly harmed or even killed by the virus. For that I’m relieved and a little proud: the sacrifice has been worth it. Absolutely, without a doubt, I did the right thing.
And yet. You guys. When I was finally able to get my booster a few weeks ago, significantly reducing my chances of catching, getting sick from, getting hospitalized with, dying from, or passing along even the omicron variant of COVID-19, I absolutely told my close friends “THIS IS IT, I’M FUCKING DONE. THE PANDEMIC IS NOW OVER FOR ME AND I WILL BE NORMAL.”
I’m sick of it! I’m now going to go about my life absolutely NOT worrying about COVID. Hot girl summer is coming.
But really, what does that mean for me? Honestly, it means I’m just going to stop WORRYING. I’ve talked openly about having generalized anxiety disorder, and my anxiety has been off the charts on and off for the past two years. That’s more or less over, now: I’m not going to panic if someone coughs near me. I’m not going to worry about hanging out with vaccinated and boosted friends. I’m not going to test myself if I’m not experiencing any symptoms. I’m not going to get claustrophobic if there are too many people at Costco. I’m not going to start sweating if I get on a plane. I’m GOING TO ACTUALLY GET ON A PLANE.
But I’m still going to wear a mask to the grocery store. And I’m going to wear a mask on a plane. And I’m not going to go out of my way to eat indoors in restaurants.
“But Rebecca,” I hear you cry, “that’s not ‘normal’! I thought you wanted to go back to normal!”
No. 2019 is never going to happen again, and that’s fine. I’m not getting “back” to normal: I’m settling into the new normal, for me. There’s still a virus out there that’s killing people who aren’t vaccinated or who have comorbidities. Sure, most of the people who aren’t vaccinated are in that position because they’re fucking morons, but they still don’t deserve to die. Neither do the people who can’t get vaccinated because of health reasons, and the people who are vaccinated but are still at risk of dying or being hospitalized from COVID. And I can easily reduce the number of people who are exposed to COVID (and influenza and pneumonia) by simply wearing a mask inside. It’s easy, it’s healthier for ME, and it saves lives.
So when I say I’m going to be normal now, what I really mean is that I’m dropping the anxiety, the isolation from my friends, and the greatest restrictions on my movement around the world. Keeping a mask in my car for the grocery store is simply not a big deal to me, and the good it causes is so great that it just makes sense. After all, people have been doing it in Asian countries for decades. Why should I consider it some ridiculous infringement upon my freedom?
And that’s why I am staunchly opposed to politicians removing mask mandates in public places. At the start of all this, a lot of people were understandably nervous to start wearing a mask everywhere. Will people stare? Say something? Think you’re overreacting? Obviously as an extremely secure person those questions never occurred to me, but…I would understand if they bothered LESS awesome people.
Mandates fix that: establishing masks as a necessary part of public life made it normal, removing any insecurity about wearing one. Here in the Bay Area, you’d get more weird looks for not wearing a mask inside a store. Removing mandates, as California is doing this week, undoes that normalization. And that’s a problem, considering that nearly 3,000 people are still dying every single fucking day from COVID-19 here in the US, which is damn close to the absolute worst peak we experienced at the end of 2020 and early 2021. “Only” about 200 people are dying of COVID every day in California, but we don’t know if that’s the peak. Our cases HAVE peaked, but for TWO YEARS we have played this game where we think everything is fine once cases start going down, so we relax rules to try to be “normal” again and boom, cases go back up. In fact, it kind of looks like that’s what’s happening RIGHT NOW in Denmark, where, two weeks after they declared the pandemic over, they’re now recording “more COVID-19 cases per capita than nearly anywhere else in the world, and both COVID hospitalizations and deaths have shot up by about a third.”
Gothamist posted a good article exploring this problem, writing “The camp that never wanted COVID measures is being joined by people who’ve followed the rules for two years. They’re vaccinated; they’re boosted and they’re ready to return to normal.”
“Those two camps coming together who are normally opposed, and now they are in greater alignment,” said Dr. Jay Van Bavel, a social psychologist and neuroscientist at New York University who studies how partisanship influences the way people think. “What you’re going to get is a bigger group of people who are not left or right. They could be all over the political spectrum — who have been boosted and done all these things for two years. They want a slow phase-in, or a quick phase-in, to normality.”
And Ed Yong over at the Atlantic recently wrote:
“Over the past year, as many Americans reveled in their restored freedoms, many immunocompromised people felt theirs shrinking. When the CDC announced that fully vaccinated Americans no longer needed to mask indoors, simple activities such as grocery shopping became more dangerous for immunocompromised people, who were offered no advice from the nation’s top public-health agency. When Joe Biden said in a speech that unvaccinated Americans were “looking at a winter of severe illness and death,” “I felt like he was talking to me,” Cheung said. And when commentators bemoaned irrational liberals who refused to abandon pandemic restrictions, many of the people I spoke with felt they were being mocked for trying to protect themselves and their loved ones. “I already feel different from other people because of this situation,” Colleen Boyce told me; she donated a kidney to her husband, Mark, who is now immunosuppressed. “The thought that when I mask up, others might look at me like there’s something wrong with me is hard to handle.””
In a video I made last month I argued that the people who are most at risk from COVID aren’t just laying in hospital beds waiting to die: they’re people going about their lives like you and me. And so I especially like how Yong wraps up his Atlantic piece:
“??Second, the immune system weakens with age, so while most people will never be as vulnerable as an organ-transplant recipient, their immunity will still become partly compromised. Respecting the needs of immunocompromised people isn’t about disproportionately accommodating some tiny minority; it’s really about empathizing with your future self. “Everyone’s going to deal with illness at some point in their life,” Levantovskaya said. “Don’t you want a better world for yourself when that time comes?””
I wish it were enough for people to just have sympathy for the other humans around them, but it’s obviously not. So maybe it helps to remind people that we’re all just “temporarily able-bodied.” No matter how fit and healthy you are now, time exposes all of us to risk. So if you can’t have empathy for your elderly neighbor, try to empathize with yourself 10, 20, 50 years from now. Support public health mandates that protect vulnerable people. Get your vaccine and booster if you can. Encourage workplaces to continue to allow remote work, and schools to allow remote learning. And for christ’s sake, cover your disgusting nose and mouth when you’re inside public buildings. It’s not that hard, you snowflake.
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