The pandemic is getting worse in Connecticut again: three counties, Hartford, New Haven, and Middlesex, are now on the CDC’s list for having “high” levels of transmission, and 158 of 169 towns qualify for the state’s “red alert” designation. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all up.
So why aren’t we talking about it?
The nation just passed one million dead from this disease over the past two years, and to mark that unfathomable milestone, Gov. Ned Lamont has ordered flags lowered to half-staff. Other than that, he’s been pretty quiet on the pandemic lately. That’s true for most American politicians now. Suddenly, this dangerous, highly-transmissible killer has been put on the back burner.
It’s strange. On the one hand, things are getting bad enough that some schools have had to close due to staff shortages. But on the other hand, when was the last time you saw a politician taking basic precautions like wearing a mask, or practicing social distancing?
COVID-19 isn’t over just because we believe it is. Viruses don’t care that we’ve moved on. Everything that’s happened from March 2020 until now should have taught us that lesson. How many times have we thought the pandemic was on its last legs, just to see it come roaring back? And how many times have we put our masks back on, canceled plans, taken a vaccine or booster shot, and hunkered down to wait it out as best we could?
This time is different. Climbing cases have been met with a shrug. We’d much rather talk about anything else.
There are a lot of reasons why the spring and summer of 2022 will be different, the most obvious and depressing among them the approach of the fall elections. In America we tend to like our politicians to be happy warriors, optimistic and forward-looking, instead of gloomy buzzkills. Who wants to vote for someone who keeps bringing up the fact that a deadly virus is still out there, infecting us at dangerously high rates?
But beyond just the shallowness of our leaders, the real problem is us. Politicians, especially in election years, tend to go where the polls point them, and the polls show that America is over COVID. Gallup recorded 20% of Americans saying that the virus was the most important issue facing the country in January; that number was down to 4% in April.
Instead, we’d rather focus on normal, kitchen-table stuff like inflation and high gas prices. And those are definitely important issues, even though both are inextricably tied to the kinds of disruptions caused by the pandemic.
Why are we like this?
Part of it really is wishful thinking. We’d love for the pandemic to be over! Who doesn’t want a regular, normal summer?
But part of it is a symptom of a much bigger problem: America is the Land of Forgetting.
So much has happened over the past decade that it’s hard to process. School shootings, police violence, the loss of Afghanistan, the rise of Donald Trump and right-wing extremism, the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, abortion, climate change… it’s a lot.
It’s very difficult to look all of that in the face and then just be expected to go to work, do our jobs, care for our children, clean up the yard, and so on, as if everything were perfectly fine.
So it’s easier, sometimes, not to look at all. If we shut out everything awful, we don’t have to deal with it. We won’t have to reckon with all the ways that this country and the world have changed, we won’t have to grapple with how our history has brought us to this point, and we definitely won’t need to finally face all of these big, seemingly unmanageable crises.
Maybe pretending it’s all okay is just a trauma response, then. But we can’t just keep ignoring reality forever. We’ve tried it in the past, and reality always has a way of coming back to bite us. The pandemic is the same.
The state needs to consider putting some basic protections back in place temporarily, such as mandating masks in schools and other public buildings. If COVID-19 is going to stick around for a long time, which it sure seems like it’s going to, then we have to have sensible measures in place to minimize the risk of new waves as they come.
The one thing we can’t do is ignore the problem. We have to be brave and strong enough to finally face reality.