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COVID Is Winning Because We Just Gave Up

The government's official position appears to be "nothing matters."

Lorie Shaull/Flickr

For the past two years, human society has been united against a common enemy. All of our militaristic cliches here in the U.S. have prepared us for this—we have been battling the invasion of the coronavirus, sending aid to our front-line workers, working on new weapons in our arsenal of treatments, preventions, and cures. We have bunkered down in our homes, strapped on armor to go outside, stockpiled food, and exhaustively researched the minutiae of things like “supply chains.”

And, like in any war, we have been led by generals: When Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump, many of us assumed that the end to the pandemic was nigh, as we finally had the weapons we needed and sturdy enough leadership to triumph over the virus. We were right on the first count: the pandemic is over. We lost. The coronavirus won because our leadership decided it wasn’t worth fighting anymore.

Take, for example, the latest guidelines on quarantining after exposure to the virus, from the CDC:

Does this make any sense to you? Does any of it seem logical? Or are we throwing spaghetti on a wall and seeing what sticks? Are we hiring McKinsey consultants to design elaborate wartime flow-charts detailing how likely you are to kill an old person by standing near them at the hardware store?

Here is a personal story. I got a scratchy throat over Christmas. I took multiple rapid tests, which were negative. A few days after Christmas, I got fully ill. I started isolating and got a PCR test.

I still do not have the results of the PCR test, because two years into the pandemic, a surge in cases has once again completely broken the country’s supposedly battle-hardened testing infrastructure. (Joe Biden, today, tweeted that “we are making improvements” to COVID testing four days after the New Year. Joe, thanks.) Did I have COVID? Did I expose other people to COVID? I don’t know. I feel fine now, and yet I have no idea whether any of the choices I made in the past 10 days were the best ones.

At this point in the pandemic, basically everyone who cares about the safety of others and has not had the ability or desire to live in a hermetically-sealed box for 24 months has experienced something like this. And yet there is still no coherent infrastructure to help inform these choices besides the rampant SEO-frenzy of health reporters interviewing experts who are interpreting half-collected data on the fly. All of these people are doing the best they can, of course, and the experts are far better informed than you or I are, but no one is running the show—the CDC can only offer “guidance” which is somehow always more complicated than it needs to be, and states and local governments can choose to follow or openly flout.

Here is another example:

We’re going to send teachers to school with COVID, as long as it’s not too bad, and then they’ll just infect the kids a little bit then. But some of the kids have vaccines now so it’s probably fine.

The general scope of what we know is that Omicron is more infectious but somewhat less severe on an individual basis, though it’s unclear if that decreased severity is due to the vaccines or the inherent nature of that variant (or some combination of the two). But even the Biden administration’s top public health officials admit that the crush of cases all hitting the system at once will—and in some places already are—severely overwhelm hospitals.

It’s been clear from the start that everyone in power was always playing a numbers game. During the Trump administration, unconsciously or not, the GOP was generally just weighing how many deaths they could afford among their base versus new voters they could mobilize through culture war shit. My assumption for Joe Biden—given one of his major campaign promises was to end the pandemic—was that the numbers game would be a bit more weighted towards keeping the maximum number of people alive.

This was wrong. We have given up, and the priority now appears to be restoring all vestiges of economic and societal function while pushing the risks and human costs of infections under the rug.

You can see this everywhere. Biden has firmly shut the door on new stimulus packages, barring “something small for restaurants,” touting the fact that the economy—on the macro-level, anyway—is “booming” right now, as a senior administration official told CNN. Things are going so well, it seems, that we can kill the Child Tax Credit and slash unemployment benefits, and in exchange send out some meager testing kits after the press secretary makes a giant blunder on the podium and gets egg on the administration’s face.

Despite the fact that hospitalizations are now as high as they were during the last Delta wave and continuing to grow, COVID has finally become the thing that conservatives said it was all along: just another flu. It’s a part of life now, and everything is back to normal, death and disease be damned. The fact that we’re now in an election year must be coincidental.

People who disagree with this, or smart at the idea of being forced to assume risk on behalf of a system designed to insulate the government from having to actually, you know, govern, are getting howled at. The powerful Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) pushed back on the city’s plan to “just go back to school and get over it” during the Omicron surge, and voted Tuesday for a short return to remote teaching. Remote teaching is the best of a set of bad solutions, and yet it is preferable to everyone at school spreading COVID wildly until so many people are out that you have to shut down schools anyway. But now many parents and pundits say that no, it actually isn’t preferable—just let it rip and we’ll deal with the consequences later.

A functional government and compassionate society could have figured out solutions to this in the two years since the pandemic started. We did not. It’s just the flu now, and everyone has to live with it. We got here not because we beat back the virus enough with our weapons and troops and armor, but because our generals surrendered and let it rip through us again and again until its most prevalent form (so far) only kills us in a scattered, disjointed manner. For people who are not healthy or rich or safely employed or are vulnerable in any other way, well, you’re shit out of luck.