Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
“A man walks into a bar. Goes up to the bartender, orders a drink. Bartender says ‘you gotta wear a mask in here, guy.’ The man shrugs and says, “If I haven’t caught it by now I’m never gonna.”
Okay, so it’s not terribly funny; I’m a “PR guy,” not a comedian. But critically, neither is Covid, and I should know: I’ve had it three times now. And I’m far from the only one. As it turns out, the Omicron sub-variants are able to cause reinfection a mere months apart, and virologists and doctors are beginning to say multiple infections a year may very well become the norm if things don’t change.
But hey, maybe it’s a factor of age or lifestyle (I work out daily, but I’ve recently entered my sixties, and I do have to travel and have in-person meetings and regular “events” for work). Maybe I have a weaker-than-average immune system (though frequent illness isn’t something I’ve ever had to deal with before…ever). Or maybe it’s simply the impact of that initial Covid infection, which did a real number on my lungs. You know, whatever you need to tell yourself to feel like this couldn’t possibly happen to you (spoiler: it could).
But the fact remains that I’ve been hit hard every time, and it’s starting to feel like this is going to be an “annual experience” because we have decided to stop taking the pandemic seriously. This is not entirely surprising, of course. I really do get it. I used to wonder how the entire planet managed to wipe the 1918 flu pandemic from our collective memory, but not anymore. Living through a pandemic is exhausting.
I remember, in 2020, noticing that emails always sounded like they were written in Regency Britain. “Dearest cousin, I pray you and your family are healthy and free from the malignant air.” Covid was mysterious and terrifying and it moved like lightning. Some of us were disinfecting our groceries, constantly sanitizing our hands, and strictly maintaining social distance on the rare occasion we felt safe enough to leave our apartments. New York City became as cold and silent as a tomb. For a couple of months, anyway. But as the pandemic endures, the circumstances haven’t. We have safe, effective vaccines freely available to all comers. We have effective treatments to keep mortality down. We know more and more how the virus spreads in the air and how it doesn’t on surfaces. We’ve learned how well correctly-worn masks can work. And, for most of us, it’s been easy to start pretending like we’re back to normal. It’d be refreshing if it didn’t seem to happen every few months.
Perhaps you haven’t noticed the pattern. A wave crests and falls back down to low infection levels and suddenly we all resume normal behavior, as if the pathogen itself were gone. And then, right on cue, numbers start to pick back up and cable news anchors furrow their foreheads in consternation at this “new” crisis. “Are we heading into another wave?” Of course we are. Because we seem incapable of thinking more than a couple of weeks ahead and a couple of weeks behind, living our lives in these rolling single-month frames where the past doesn’t matter and the future will be exactly like now. This is a well-documented cognitive bias, but I wonder if the pandemic exacerbated that; we need, desperately need, to know that the worst is behind us, that the sun’ll be out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar.
But look; it doesn’t matter if the sun is out tomorrow if there’s still a dead, mutating virus out there that millions of us are still vulnerable to. That means we need to change how we think about this pandemic, and that requires changing how we talk about it. Luckily, that happens to be my specialty; I’m both famously verbose and a PR lifer.
What’s critically needed is context, the context not only of our experiences these last years (but yes, those, desperately those), but of the whole experience of the pandemic. What’s needed is public messaging that it’s not over, and we know it’s not over because it hasn’t been over the last six times we’ve played this game. And yes, the recognition that this sucks, it’s exhausting, it’s a lot, it’s understandable that people want this to be over.
It comes at us like call and response: rates go low, we go out; we go out, rates go up. The call is coming from the inside of the house and the snake is eating his own tail. We are the very picture of self-defeat, our collective refusal to treat the virus as a continuing problem is doing the legwork that’s keeping it a problem. That’s the message we must hammer home every single day: the virus isn’t going to go away on its own. Just because we want it to be over doesn’t mean it’s over.
Perhaps, in time, it will settle into a seasonal pattern like the flu, taming itself for survival the way your cat’s ancestors did 10,000 years ago. But that’s not yet the case. We just marked the official tally of Covid deaths in the United States hitting one million, or somewhere in the ballpark of one out of every 300 people. A million people, more than the population of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh combined, vanished into the dust of the earth. A 9/11 every day for nearly a year. A quarter of the population of Los Angeles. The entire state of Wyoming. But that marker was hardly noticed in the media or culture at large. It’s a trauma response, honestly, not to think about it. But we have to think about it or it’s going to keep happening. In global terms, this is already at least the fifth-deadliest plague in recorded history, surpassed by the likes of AIDS (which it may be poised to exceed) and the bubonic plague.
None of this is news. None of this should come as a surprise. But we’ve grown so accustomed to keeping our eyes down and pretending all is well, and we might as well go to that nightclub or restaurant or concert. That only changes if, on a public level, someone makes a concerted effort to make sure we remember the past well enough to make reasonable assumptions about the future.
24 million dead across the world, a number roughly equivalent to military deaths in the Second World War (which took six years), that many have decided to pretend never happened. But I’m sitting here lying in bed, struggling to breathe, thinking about my time and my future, and your time and your future. But we have no future if we have no past. So let’s start talking about it.