If more evidence were needed that the country had largely moved on from the pandemic as an all-consuming national emergency, Congress just provided some.
Lawmakers on Wednesday passed a $1.5 trillion omnibus appropriations bill through the House that included billions of dollars for American priorities; defense spending, servicing debt and entitlements, and even aid for Ukraine as it continues to resist the Russian onslaught. What the chamber couldn’t pass, however, was another round of Covid relief. Negotiations over a new round of funding for the pandemic dissolved into familiar partisan politics, as lawmakers argued over banalities such as the logistics of disbursing these funds to their intended targets and ensuring the package wasn’t financed by deficit spending alone. The return of such quotidian concerns signals that the urgency of the pandemic is behind us.
The sense that the pandemic has become something less than an emergency is reinforced by the latest report on American job growth. In February, the U.S. economy counted 678,000 new jobs, well over the 423,000 that were expected, while the unemployment rate declined to 3.8 percent. Subsequent revisions to December’s and January’s jobs reports showed that America gained 92,000 more jobs than analysts thought, adding to already prodigious job growth in those months. Throughout the whole of the Omicron wave, the job market did not contract as so many expected it would. Just the opposite; the public went back to work.
As the bottom has fallen out of the arguments that justified pandemic-related restrictions, so, too, have those restrictions disappeared at a staggering pace. As a result, the disorientation experienced by those for whom the pandemic’s behavioral proscriptions and prescriptions have been a source of psychological comfort is palpable. They’re not taking it well.
“Medically speaking, the pandemic isn’t over,” USA Today’s Louie Villalobos asserted. More than that, though, what we remember as “normal” isn’t going to return either. He goes on to suggest that to “move on” from the conditions we lived through for two terrible years would be to insult the dead and those who survived them, to sacrifice our commitments to the hospital workers who gave so much, and to those who are still struggling—the immunocompromised and those suffering from “long Covid.” Villalobos isn’t alone.
The Atlantic’s Ed Yong also lamented society’s causal disregard for Americans who must navigate life while struggling with immunodeficiencies. Those with immune deficiencies do not “get to live in a bubble,” the writer and lupus sufferer Maggie Levantovskaya told Yong. They do not “live in seclusion” and have “rich social lives.” But the ambiguities that pervade this stage of the pandemic have left them “stuck in limbo.” Their health and safety “depends on the accommodations society is willing to make.” Those accommodations would ideally include “remote-work and remote-school options, but also mask mandates for essential spaces such as grocery stores and pharmacies.” Yong’s is admittedly a “moral argument,” which has seamlessly taken the place of the scientific rationale for these measures.
The mysterious affliction deemed “long Covid” has become a media fixation as the nation rushes toward the pandemic’s exit doors. Sufferers find their circumstances worsened by the incredulity they face from employers, some of whom are reportedly insensitive to their plight. And they are hurt by health insurers, who are befuddled by a condition they cannot diagnose via conventional medical testing. New research suggests “long Covid” sufferers exhibit symptoms that mimic autoimmune rheumatic diseases, which is a debilitating but treatable condition. Like those with immunodeficiencies, the afflicted are now contemplating re-engagement with a world in which they will be expected to be more risk-averse than the general public because of their unique circumstances. That is very much “normal” insofar as it describes modern life prior to March 2020.
“For Millions, the Pandemic Isn’t Over: ‘We Are Indeed Stuck,’” read the headline on a WebMD article narrating the stories of millions of people with special medical conditions who are unwilling or unable to return to the status quo. Their situations deserve sympathy, but why everyone else must sacrifice their own personal risk assessments in deference to this relatively small minority is an argument that is harder to make. That explains why, when the argument is made, it is issued at peak decibel levels and often accompanied by transparent emotional manipulation.
The end of pandemic restrictions across the Western world led University College of London Professor Christina Pagel to insist that her fellow citizens maliciously “shrug off the vulnerable & say don’t care.” “Having cancer in a pandemic has, at least for now, turned me into a wary misanthrope,” one Californian told New York Times reporters in January, citing the many who have gone unmasked in public in recent weeks. “‘They really don’t care if I die’ is a recurrent thought, and I fear I’ll never return fully to my open-hearted self.”
The Guardian sounded a similar note about how society “doesn’t seem to care whether they survive.” Today, “the headlong rush back to ‘normal’ means the end of the few freedoms they had been able to enjoy.” Indeed, those who selfishly resume the lives they remembered are actively repressing their compromised neighbors because “their refusal to mask denies freedom of movement to immunocompromised people,” wrote George Washington University Professor Elisabeth Anker.
Then there are those who see the permanent observation of the restrictions imposed on society by this disease as a mark of status and a badge of honor. You can identify them by their disregard for “the science” as we understand it. “No, this pandemic isn’t over yet, folks,” wrote prolific novelist Tara Moss featuring herself posing in a tank top and cloth facemask. “#MaskUp,” she concluded. Survivor Corps founder Diana Zicklin Berrent followed this same format when she published a masked selfie and advised the public to “ignore the guidance” around masking from the Centers for Disease Control. “It’s the right thing to do.” As apparently each and every public health expert who talked to the Miami Herald contends, masking is a general courtesy that should be observed even “during respiratory virus seasons.”
Two weeks ago, the CDC responded to the political pressure on the administration to move on from the pandemic by revising the metrics it used to recommend masking. Overnight, 70 percent of the nation found themselves at low-to-medium risk from Covid and could forego masking in public—a pronounced shift from the day prior, when “96 percent of counties” were designated high risk. Today, after a significant delay, the CDC opted to extend mandatory masking in all public transportation for at least another month while the agency evaluates “COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science.” The CDC recommends N95 masks, but the Transportation Safety Administration is fine with disposable or even cloth masks despite the limited protection they provide. After all, the genuinely at-risk population is blessedly small, and the threat to public health is a less pronounced concern for public health advocates than seeing others begrudgingly comply with authority. Maybe that’s the whole point.