I’ve had all I can take of people promising me that “everything will get back to normal soon.” Some people say it in the context of a world where a safe and effective vaccine has been administered to 99%+ of the world’s population (as per the defeat of polio). Others say it believing that once everyone on earth has contracted the virus, the survivors will be permanently immune to it. A radical few say it insisting that the novel coronavirus will simply vanish like magic because … reasons. I don’t want to cast aspersions on why any given individual thinks there will be a return to normalcy “after COVID-19 ends; I do want to savage the naïve hope that we’re somehow getting the world of 2019 back. We’re not. That option never existed and will not come to pass.
Our unwanted party guest SARS CoV-2 is a virus, not a fashion trend. It is not going to simply “go away.” So long as one host still carries it – regardless of whether or not that host is significantly affected by it – SARS CoV-2 will remain a threat to everyone who isn’t vaccinated against it or whose vaccination isn’t effective for whatever reason. It only takes onesuccessful infection of an unprotected person to bring COVID-19 (the disease) roaring back.
So, no. We’re not going back to the world of 2019 when everyone could mingle in public carefree and nobody cared about contracting COVID-19. At best, we’re going to achieve a new world where SARS CoV-2 is a contained threat, after we’ve so thoroughly implemented crucial anti-contamination protocols that our new “normal” has effectively minimized the risk of being exposed to the virus. We will get there … eventually … and only after many tens of thousands of unnecessary preventable deaths and life-long crippling injuries. We’ll have to rid ourselves of the last vestiges of COVID-19 denialism and evolve into to a world where the threat it represents must be actively dealt with as an undeniable and universal practice. We’re on our way towards achieving a significant turning point in human history, but we’re not there yet.
That doesn’t mean that our post-COVID-19 world is going to resemble either a clean, green utopia (with flying electric cars and the elimination of global poverty) or a grim dystopia (with tyrannical oppression and ubiquitous flaming trash barrels). Those sorts of radical shift happen in cinema when scriptwriters skip over all the boring incremental changes that turn “present day” into (imagine ominous theremin music here) “THE FUTURE!TM”
The differences between now and then will be clear enough that future audiences will be able to instantly recognize if a piece of art was set before or after the critical turning point. There will be clearly noticeable differences that astute audience members will be able to pick up on. Sort of like how a movie featuring a character boarding or existing a jet airline places the story’s setting incontrovertibly after 1958 – and, probably, in the 1960s. No, I don’t know what the key visual changes for post-COVID-19 are going to be; its too early for that. I just know that we’ll be able to tell … after we’ve worked out how we’re going to live alongside a persistent viral threat.
We’re not there yet.
Speaking of, Texas recently decided to re-open public schools so children could resume in-person instruction – something our governor has yearend for since the first lockdowns began last spring. Many children in my community stopped taking VTC-only remote classes and returned to their home campus two weeks ago. What a joy it was for some parents: they get their schooldays back! They don’t have to tutor or mind their kids 24/7! Back to normal! Sure; it is exactly that … back to “coronavirus times normal,” not “back to 2019.”
On 17th September, Corbett Smith of the Dallas Morning News posted an article titled: “More than 4,500 students and staff in Texas schools have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the school year.” The article is careful to avoid scaremongering; it makes clear that the 2,344 children who contracted in the last two weeks make up only 0.2% of the 1.1 million public school students throughout Texas public schools. Phrased that way, the infection rate seems low. Safe, even.
Except … not all 1.1 million kids returned to in-person classes; many school districts allowed parents to keep their kids at home and continue remote-only education. Many more districts haven’t re-opened at all given their local infection rate and sustained high ICU bed use rates. That “1.1 million” factor really isn’t an accurate divisor.
More importantly, 2,175 adult staff members in the Texas public school system have been infected, tested, and confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 in the last two weeks along and the schoolyear has just started. Further we know there’s a significant undercounting of infections throughout the state. How many infected teachers are still spreading the virus day after day? It’s not like we identified all of the susceptible kids and adults as part of the “welcome back” process; now that they’ve been diagnosed and removed, everyone else is safe for the rest of the schoolyear, right? Right?!?
Do I even need to say it?
What’s infuriating is that every single one of these 4,519 coronavirus infections was completely unnecessary and easily preventable.All we had to do to prevent this was to do … nothing. Kids and teachers were successfully holding classes remotely in the weeks leading up to the big “return to normal.” Politicians were so eager to score a public relations victory before the November elections that they pushed an unrealistic plan that has – predictably – gotten thousands of people infected and inevitably will get many of those people killed. All for what?
This seems like a scene from a bad horror movie. This is the part midway through a by-the-numbers film where one or more oblivious secondary characters do something immensely dangerous – like split up to search for the monster alone – and then get killed piecemeal for their stupidity. It’s the part in the story that’s so schlocky that audiences will shout derisively at the screen because everyone but the poorly-written characters knows that what the characters are doing is bloody stupid and unnecessarily dangerous. The trope is so common that it’s funny …
Except this isn’t a movie. My little nieces returned to school in-person two weeks ago. I’m terrified for their chances. They didn’t rationally accept this risk. Their lives are being gambled because some influential Texans can’t endure the COVID-19 countermeasures any longer and are willing to gamble with other people’s children’s lives for a longshot at getting their 2019 lives back.
As shameful and horrifying as this example is, it serves as an excellent example of the transitory stage we’re living in … the long period of chaos before we must endure before we achieve the “new normal.” Any return to a reasonably safe post-pandemic society is going to come in fits and starts. We’ll make limited progress and then we’ll inevitably backslide. Eventually, inexorably, our institutions will be forced to adopt the minimum effective standards required to keep people alive. The laggards and holdouts will fall by the wayside as an increasingly exasperated public reaches the end of their forbearance. That world will resemble 2019 in many ways, while changing dramatically in key areas.
There’s no way around it. We’re going to stumble through a series of ineffective half-measures that affect everything from mass transit to public gatherings to workplace and school design to mandatory public health protocols before reality sinks in. Our laws and social norms will have to evolve to contain those people who refuse to live up to their new responsibilities vis-à-vis the rest of society. Believe whatever you want, Karen, but if you’re catch outside without your mask again there’ll be hell to pay.
Along those lines, the path to post-COVID-19 is going to be littered with graves. Organizations, industries, and monied interests that rely on the world to operate as it did in 2019 are going to drag their feet on evolving until they’re either forced to or until they’re removed from play. There’s a tipping point coming … one measures in children’s’ lives cut short … that we have to reach before we Americans collectively take this threat seriously.
How many, though? That’s the question. All I can say is that the next few years – the transitionary period between no coronavirus and contained perpetual coronavirus – are going to see extensive retooling of the economy with corresponding seismic changes to everyone’s personal life. Many of the changes will be aborted after being proven ineffective; some lucky few will become the indispensable foundation of our “new normal.” No matter how the process unfolds, lasting change is inevitable, and the road to what’s next will be paved in the bodies of innocent people who were sacrificed for a desperate desire to return to the “good old days.”
Don’t be one of those holdouts. I understand; I do. I miss a lot of the things that we used to do in 2019 too, like meeting my mates down at my local pub. I get it. That being said, we must stop dwelling on what we’ve lost and focus instead of what we need to become. Stop asserting that “everything will get back to normal.” It won’t. The longer it takes us to move on, the more innocent people are going to die. Focus on what we can do to stabilise society in the context of a lethal coronavirus that isn’t going away.
Our friends, neighbours, and children are going away, though. One by one. All because American society petulantly doesn’t want to accept the bad hand we’ve been dealt.
Pop Culture Allusion: Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference(2002 book)