Is this how pandemics end? With press releases and retirements? While danger still lurks? While pain and suffering in many forms still reverberate? Without enough lessons learned, despite the burden we have collectively paid?
The World Health Organization this past week announced that the global COVID-19 health emergency is over. Here in the United States, the Biden administration said it is ending this country’s public health emergency, first declared in March 2020. It will also end COVID vaccination requirements for federal employees, among others. Meanwhile, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC head who helped lead the pandemic response, announced she would be stepping down.
It certainly feels like the end of an era.
Across the country and around the world, it looks on the surface as if we have returned to whatever “normal” was before nearly 7 million died (according to WHO) and millions more were left gravely sick and with long-term struggles from the COVID pandemic. Bars and restaurants are full. So are stadiums and airplanes. And in most cases, nary a mask is in sight.
All of this makes sense on a very human level. We are desperate for the personal connections that grant life meaning. We want to gather with family and friends. We want to hug and see each other smile. Many have calculated that the costs of missing these joys outweigh the risks of COVID. After all, case numbers haven’t surged. We have amassed a degree of immunity from vaccination and/or infection, significantly reducing severe illness and death numbers.
But despite all the desperation for good feelings, COVID can still be a killer, especially for those who are particularly vulnerable due to age or other medical conditions. And public health officials worry that the disease could still yield surprises — such as another variant, like omicron, that could overwhelm the immunological defenses we have amassed. This scenario is not a certainty or even necessarily a likelihood, but it is a possibility. And it should be recognized as such.
But the continuing direct threat from COVID is not the only danger we still face from it.
When historians look back at this era, what will they see? There were positive aspects, like the incredibly rapid development of vaccines. But there was so much damage. Most important were those who lost their lives and the families and communities that were shattered as a result. But this disease has wreaked havoc in other ways.
It further divided us as a nation along political fault lines. It has exacerbated an anti-science trend within the political right wing. It has fostered conspiracy theories and bred cynical suspicions. These have only hardened even as case counts have diminished.
Then there is the scale of the mental health damage from isolation, fear, trauma, dizzying change. It is impossible to fully measure, but we do know it is at a level that is almost unfathomable. It is especially acute among the young. A recent Pew study found that 58% of Americans ages 18 to 29 “have faced high levels of psychological distress since the COVID-19 outbreak began.” Meanwhile, teachers will tell you about the residual effects among their students. How will this play out in the decades to follow?
Our economy has also changed, along with how we live and work. In many cities, downtowns and office buildings sit largely empty as employees do their jobs from home. This phenomenon has rippling effects — both positive and negative.
Local businesses who serve office workers are hurting. Tax bases are depleted. And some public transit systems are on the brink of financial catastrophe as ridership has plummeted. Cutbacks will disproportionately impact those of lower incomes who rely on these services. They also have implications for how we will address climate change as people eschew group ridership to return to their cars.
On the upside, the concept of the urban center is being rethought, with dormant office buildings converted into housing. Former commuters are saving time and money (and potentially burning less fossil fuel); remote work can offer additional flexibility for everything from family togetherness to exercise routines. Some of these changes were underway before COVID and only accelerated by its pressures.
Our world since the onset of COVID is profoundly different. In that sense, we will carry this pandemic forward no matter the case counts or the official designations. We are angrier, sadder, more anxious, and more divided. We are less prepared for another strain of this virus or, heaven forbid, a different pathogen than we should be. We as individuals and as a society will be contending with damage that is long lasting and unpredictable.
What we can hope for, however, is that we face these new challenges directly. COVID exploited many of the cracks and injustices that already weakened our society. It caused us to question how we lived our lives. Its effects lurk in ways that, if handled with empathy and determination, can make us stronger. One thing is certain: Those of us who lived through this pandemic will never be the same.
We can be more conscious of and responsive to mental illness. We can make our cities more equitable and prosperous. We can refine how we live and work to promote a sense of balance. Sometimes the positives that can come out of tragedy are not readily apparent in the immediate aftermath of the fear and loss. Let us hope that is the case today as we try to say goodbye to COVID.
— Read on steady.substack.com/p/trying-to-say-goodbye-to-covid