Who here remembers “two weeks to flatten the curve”? Anybody? How about six feet of social distance to “stop the spread”? And let’s not forget this hoary chestnut: “Follow the science.”
All of these were still in vogue—though the bodies stacked outside Elmhurst hospital, the epicenter of the original U.S. epicenter, mercifully had been removed—when my intrepid family ventured upstate for the July 4th weekend of 2020 to stage a super-spreader event. The celebration, which was held outdoors, marked my mom’s 80th birthday. Many of those brave enough to attend were her age. Guess how many of them got sick? The answer is none.
Covid at that point was ripping through the southern and southwestern United States, following the devastating pattern established in the northeast: positive tests that became infections that led to hospitalizations that graduated to ICU confinements that were, in far too many instances, fatal. Please note that these are distinct categories. The media sure didn’t. Harkening back to a previous plague when we were browbeaten into admitting that “silence equaled death,” the hectoring over this dreaded new disease teetered on declaring that to pull up a positive test for the virus meant your last days might well be upon you.
The hysteria attending most arguments in favor of lockdowns left me cold. The resolutions from every level of government to “crush” the virus by six months in were being issued despite a barrage of data that flew in the face of a full-court-press policy approach: Covid mostly killed already sick old people and those with serious underlying medical conditions. Statistically, adults under age 75 and in relatively good health were going to be okay. Still, businesses and offices stayed open or closed according to government caprice. Children, while not immune, were much less severely affected than adults, representing two one-hundredths of one percent of US deaths. But the teachers’ unions wouldn’t budge in their insistence on complete school closure. Poor people were getting a rough shake, too, not only in the realm of health outcomes, but as a direct result of policies implemented by those who always claim to have the interest of the poor—the short order cooks, the cleaning ladies, the minimum-wage security guys—at heart. Poor people get a rough shake, period.
Staying safe by staying home was making me crazy, and I knew I was about to crack when a trip aboard the Number 7 Train (I hadn’t ridden the subway in months) to the dentist—the dentist—brought me near tears of joy. I posted a plaintive perspective to this space, making a few of the same points I’m about to make again. Privately, I was mocked, although I have to say, reading through it now, the piece holds up pretty well.
Then, through something as banal as a Facebook ad, I got lucky. Big Pharma was seeking participants for a Covid vaccine trial, and I qualified. My wife and daughter were aghast, but I was game. I hardly think of myself as virtuous. It’s a personality thing. I was never afraid of getting sick, which didn’t mean the virus wouldn’t find me, bring me low, maybe even finish me off. I’m still not afraid—well, most of the time—of what havoc medicine (now more than ever as much an art as a science) may wreak on my body as a result of—let’s call it what it is—the human experimentation I subjected myself to.
The first two blasts I received, in the fall of 2020, turned out to be placebos. This was disappointing, but I had consented to that possibility in the name of science, pesky science again, and I followed every point of protocol, receiving two shots three weeks apart in the winter of 2021, when the vaccines became available to the public. (The consistent communication and professionalism of those directing the study had raised my confidence about the vaccine’s efficacy.)
Leaving the clinic after my second dose, I said something dumb like “I’m bulletproof now,” and while a nurse let me know I was far from it, I’d like to state clearly that I am not now, nor was I then, in favor of compulsory vaccination. Polio, yes. Coronavirus, no. My actions were entirely voluntary, based upon my personal medical profile. To somebody around my age (62), I would have said, yes, get the shot; it might—might—strengthen your resistance to the virus, not prevent contraction or transmission (which is what the nurse told me before my waiting period expired, and I was allowed to leave). How that critical fact got lost, left out, or shouted down in the information war that raged afterwards remains a mystery.
And then the dastardly Omicron came along and blew everybody’s pleading and calculating right to hell. Today, the fourth or fifth Covid subvariant is sweeping through New York City. “Cases,” as the media unrelentingly tells us, are unquestionably on the rise, when what they mean by cases is “positive tests.” That number is deceiving, too. Many of these tests, when they are bothered with at all, are being administered at home and going unreported. But because high numbers of sick people are not dying, thank God, or causing massive disruption in hospitals, news of this latest subvariant lacks dramatic punch, and so the media shrugs. The novel coronavirus is weakening, as almost all viruses do over time, and whether this is in spite of or because of our gargantuan global effort to, um, crush it is an open question.
I’m writing this as a guy who’s just now recovering from a mild case of Covid 19, right along with a whole bunch of other people I know, whose experience has tracked mine letter for letter. I was uncomfortable, feverish, achy, and miserable, but I’m always fairly discontented, and my current biggest problem is that you don’t feel nearly as sorry for me as I do for myself.
I was contacted by the study about eight or so weeks ago, and they were recommending against a second booster shot. (I’d already acquiesced to the first.) I could of course take it, but then I’d be excused from the trial, and I don’t want that. Of course, this guidance could change. Who knows? But I’ve been following this story for a long time. I want to see how it comes out.
I never meant to make light of or diminish in any way the genuine anguish that millions of people have suffered. But I’m afraid the last installment on this bill hasn’t been paid. That is, not in terms of the psychological harm we’ve inflicted on our populace, the fear we’ve instilled, the social cohesion we’ve destroyed, the setbacks we’ve heaped on our struggling urban public education. It could take a decade to recoup our reversals—or that day might not come at all.
How do we get back to where we were before Covid? Maybe we don’t.