Clearly not. There was a moment this summer, sometime in June or July when the vaccine became available for kids 12 and over, when there seemed to be a collective unclenching, a sigh of relief as we returned to some limited gatherings indoors and looked forward to a much better school year. People traveled and ate in restaurants again, my husband took our vaccinated son to see the long-anticipated Black Widow in the theater, I attended my school’s in-person convocation, held in a large fieldhouse for maximum distancing and ventilation, and our fully vaccinated book club met indoors for the first time in over a year.
And then case numbers started climbing again, even in highly vaccinated communities like ours. The Delta variant, the recalcitrant unvaccinated, the regretful unvaccinated, the frustrated and angry vaccinated, the breakthrough infections among the vaccinated, all of us anxious and frustrated and now back to mask mandates regardless of vaccine status. And now it seems we’ve missed the crucial exit off the highway of this disaster and we’re hurtling toward a never-ending viral loop.
In other states, things are much more dire, mostly because of ideology and the bad public health policies that follow from that. An uneven, politicized federal response early on and the continued divisions around vaccines and masks mean there’s no common script for how we return or recover, or whatever this is we’re doing now. And with the Delta variant, what is safe to do seems an ever-shifting target. Even in our highly vaxxed, science-believing community, there seems to be a wide range of tolerances for different levels of risk. My family and I have been slower to return to things, and we’re still not dining indoors at restaurants and only a handful of people have been inside our house. But when I look back over the past few months, I realize we’ve eased back into some activities –letting our tween sleep over at a friend’s house or driving across several states to visit my mother – that others would still find much too risky. Families must continue to be their own public health experts, doing their own risk assessment to decide what risks are worth taking depending on their personal needs and local circumstances.
“Post-pandemic” is starting to sound like a cruel joke, a farce. Just the other day, my 9-year-old remarked matter-of-factly, “we’re probably going to have to social distance and mask for a long time.” Yes, this thing is going to be with us for a while, because misinformation is a formidable virus, too. In the meantime, while people continue to fill hospitals and die, the rest of us have to somehow continue with living.
So, this is a strange time. It feels like a perpetual limbo. But what if this is it? What if what we’re approaching now is not a post-pandemic world, but a post-waiting world. Enough waiting for schools and businesses to reopen, enough waiting to see friends and family, enough waiting for the unvaccinated to be convinced. With the latest vaccination mandates in both the private and public sectors, it seems we are approaching a massive sorting of the population. Lines are being drawn and choices have to be made. There are hundreds and thousands of people, including in health care, willing to lose their jobs rather than get vaccinated. There are public safety officers suing for their right to be a public health hazard. My hair dresser, who’d lost a close family member to Covid and whose whole family had contracted the virus before vaccines were available because a client of her husband’s had decided a mask was too uncomfortable to wear while getting a massage (!), lamented the callousness of “friends” who’d moved to Florida and gloated about the “freedom” of going maskless everywhere. And then there’s news of “the great resignation” – people quitting their jobs because they don’t want to return to the office, or their long commutes, or their low wages and shit conditions, or terrible colleagues and bosses. With this re-sorting, a further polarization, but also the permanent reshaping of entire industries and cities and towns in ways that are impossible to predict. No wonder we’re all exhausted all the time.
Despite how fucked up things still are, I must confess, I’m glad we’re not waiting anymore. I’m grateful my kids are going to school again, that they can play with their friends and even have them over sometimes. I’m glad my employer is requiring vaccines and that in-person teaching is possible with all the safety protocols in place. Where we were before might have been safer, but it was unsustainable.
I must also confess that when I hear about someone who contracted Covid and is now in the hospital, one of my first thoughts is, “were they vaccinated?” I realize I’m rationing my compassion. And even darker thoughts start to bubble up: “serves you right,” “what did you expect?” And then I hear about the motherless or fatherless children left behind and feel chastened. A senseless tragedy all around.
But between the most reckless and the most fearful among us, we have to figure out a way to live with Covid, a way to live despite it. How to do it without bitterness, judgment, and recrimination seems the challenge before us in this post-waiting world.