There’s a decent enough chance that you or someone in your life has contracted Covid in the last few weeks, part of a recent spike that’s seen NYC’s seven-day average for confirmed and probable cases climb from the 200s in early July to the 700s mid-August. This is almost certainly a dramatic undercount given how much less testing is being done, which means fewer positive cases are reported to the city. After much fanfare around the end of the pandemic, signaled practically and symbolically by the end of the federal emergency in May, what does this mean for us?
If you look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s webpage on Covid variants classifications, you might be surprised to see that there are no fewer than 12 World Health Organization-identified variants, each with their own subvariants and dates when they were designated as being of interest, concern, or high concern. Most of them never really broke through the news cycle, even during the height of Covid. You’ll probably recognize Alpha, Delta, and Omicron, but not Iota or Mu.
The recent uptick seems to be a result of the EG.5 subvariant, which is descended from Omicron, already well known for circumventing earlier vaccine protections. If you’re now annoyed by hearing yet again about spike proteins, and immunity evasion, and feeling the burnout from three grinding years of pandemic, you should bear in mind that this is not incidental. This is exactly what viruses have evolved to do, and Covid is working just as intended, as attested by the litany of variants. Despite the allure of declaring a decisive victory over the virus, we have not and probably cannot ever actually get there. We’ve won key battles but it’s a war of attrition, in which Covid has the singular goal of wearing us down, not just our immunity but our willingness to fight, and unfortunately it’s very good at it.
I want to stop here and state clearly that I’m not suggesting that we’re at a real risk of backsliding into the acute public health crisis that characterized the first pandemic year; vaccine protections might be waning but they are certainly not nullified, and even for people who do contract Covid, it’s much less deadly than without the immunity. I’m not arguing we should go back into lockdowns or avoid crowded settings.
One of the frustrating things about Covid fatigue and the extreme politicization of pandemic countermeasures is that we’ve come to think of this in a very absolutist, binary fashion. Either it’s a five-alarm fire, a crisis requiring extreme response, or it’s nothing and we’ll do nothing about it. Militancy on the Covid denialism front has done much damage — and I worry that there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle when it comes to the tendency to get conspiratorial about public health — but we should understand that militancy in the other direction is counterproductive too, for the simple reason that it stands in the way of how most people will functionally have to adapt.
All the political talk about a return to normalcy and getting on with our lives is an understandable channeling of a deep-seated desire to just put Covid behind us, reclaim some of the life that it took (figuratively, and in too many cases, literally). Yet we lose the plot when we believe that pretending it isn’t there can be effective.
There are plenty of shades between absolute shutdown and free-for-all. It probably makes sense, for example, for the federal government to reverse course on stepping back from funding free vaccines. Some people retort something along the lines of “what, are we just going to fund free vaccines forever?” and I find that kind of question puzzling. Yes? We fund water fluoridation, and Food and Drug Administration inspectors, and weather modelers forever, don’t we? It’s all part of being a society that understands that a little risk reduction and forecasting goes a long way and has significant return on investment, not only in terms of money but in terms of lives and health of the public. Flu shots are already often available for low or no cost during periods where we know it’s circulating, so why not have the same for Covid, and RSV, and everything else?
Where we should eventually get is seeing Covid prevention as a kind of second-nature activity — packing a mask to go to a crowded event as a new variant is spreading in the same way you might wear a raincoat if you see storm clouds or pack sunblock to go to the beach. A minor safeguard that you don’t think about much, but which will nonetheless save you a lot of strife.
Every once in a while we should be prepared to ramp up our preventive measures in tandem with increased risks, such as the discovery of a particularly nasty subvariant, or the emergence of a completely new zoonotic virus, something we should accept is likely to happen. The widespread closures that characterized the early pandemic should be a last resort, but one that should be on the table when necessary. We really shouldn’t come to view Covid as a one-time anomaly, similar to living in an era of climate catastrophe where adaptation means living with a shifted reality, distinct from what we’ve had to deal with before (in fact, climate change is itself increasing the likelihood of further pandemics).
Is it great that we all just have one more thing to worry about now, one additional looming specter that we have to safeguard against with too-little support from our leaders? Of course not. But pushing it out of our mind is only going to be worse for everyone. The post-pandemic era, ultimately, won’t look like the pre-pandemic era or the pandemic era. It will be somewhere between.