A Whimper, Not a Bang

“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper,”

– T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

How will the pandemic end? Will it be with a “bang” or a “whimper”? Will there be a definitive moment where the sun will shine through the clouds, trumpets blast and the masses emerge from their isolation? Or will it imperceptibly slip down, ever so gradually, degree by degree, into something we no longer need to be subjecting ourselves to?

If there will be a “bang” then we need only to wait till that moment comes. But if it is a whimper? Then eventually, after examining as much good information as we can, there comes a time where we must simply choose to no longer live under the grey cloud. We must emerge and leave behind a pandemic mindset. That time may be now.

I have spent the last two years trying to gently encourage those around me to take covid seriously, to be vaccinated if possible, and to prioritize the needs of others over themselves. I am not writing this today out of a long track record of fighting against covid measures, but the opposite. However, in my laymen’s perspective, it seems like now we have good reason to believe that the pandemic mindset we have adopted for the past two years is no longer the most appropriate. Of course, all that could change with the outbreak of some new deadly variant–but I don’t want to write that sentence after each paragraph, so you can just assume that qualification with everything written below.

Lastly, I am a pastor, not a doctor, not a scientist. I am not pretending that my writing here will persuade governors or superintendents. I am writing to help those in my congregation and other like-minded congregations to consider an empirical, evidence-based argument for why we should begin the process of trying to return back to a more normal kind of life. By “normal” I mean not letting case counts and “breaking news!” headlines control whether or not we gather with friends for dinner, go to church, or send our children to school, but should rely on normal standards we have always used (if you are sick, stay home).

A Reason for Optimism

Omicron, the most recent variant, appears to be spreading rapidly, but not leaving a wake of devastation behind it. While still a risk to older, unvaccinated populations, it has not yet led to a significant spike in hospitalizations or deaths. A recent study out of the UK found that the Omicron variant is 70% less likely to lead to hospitalization than previous variants. Cases in South Africa, where it was first detected, have already begun to trend downwards, notably without leading to a corresponding surge in hospitalizations or deaths, despite South Africa only having 26.4% of its population fully vaccinated (61.7% in America).

Further, Omicron’s heightened contagiousness coupled with milder symptoms may actually fuel the end of the pandemic itself, granting natural-immunity to those it rapidly infects, and transforming our experience with covid into something more like our regular experience with the flu.

The BMJ, a peer reviewed journal based out of the University of Oxford, has released an online risk-assessment tool to show you what your percentage risks are of catching covid and being hospitalized, or dying from covid (Note: this is a tool meant to only be used within the UK and was released prior to the Omicron variant, but since Omicron hasn’t increased the severity of symptoms, the data is still helpful). But I went ahead and put my information in and found that I, a 31 year old with no major health problems who has been fully vaccinated, currently have a 0.0062% chance of being hospitalized from covid (1 in 16, 219), a 0.0045% chance of dying after already contracting covid (1 in 22,222), and a 0.0003% of both catching and dying from covid (1 in 333,333).

That is roughly equivalent to the chances of me being struck by lightning at some point in my life (1 in 15,300) and being struck by lightning this year (1 in 222,000; actually significantly more likely than me catching covid and dying from it). My chances of dying from a car accident are astronomically higher (1 in 107).

Of course, if you are older or unvaccinated (or both), those risks are higher. Once they have contracted covid, a vaccinated 75-year-old woman has a 0.45% chance of dying (1 in 220), and an unvaccinated 75-year-old woman has a 5.98% chance of dying (1 in 17)–a significantly higher risk. This however is simply an argument for why at-risk populations should be vaccinated and receive booster shots, writes David Leonhardt at the New York Times: ““I think the risk is not super high for relatively healthy and boosted people in their 70s,” Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, told me. “I think it’s moderate at most.”” But even among the vaccine hesitant or those more at-risk, with a new oral anti-viral treatment now approved, the case for optimism still seems well grounded (90% effective at preventing hospitalization and death if taken within 3 days of symptoms, and 85% effective if taken within 5 days).

While all of this should give us reason to be hopeful, cases have been rising precipitously in America. Omicron appears to indeed be hyper contagious. Most cases are localized in the Northeast and Eastern-Midwest, but it seems likely it will eventually spread.

However, the same rise in cases has not led to the same rise in hospitalizations. You can see how previous peaks in cases led to almost identical peaks in hospitalizations, but the recent spike in cases has only given a gradual bump in hospitalizations. Further, given the very recent arrival of the new anti-viral pill just released, we should continue to see a disparity between case counts and hospitalizations and deaths.

You can see a similar disparity between cases and deaths in the recent arrival of Omicron.

There has been recent uptick in children infections and hospitalizations in the Northeast, but this isn’t because Omicron is more severe, but simply more contagious: “I think the important story to tell here is that severity is way down and the risk for significant severe disease seems to be lower,” said Dr. David Rubin, a researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Childhood hospitalizations continue to be lower than the peak in September. “Also complicating the picture,” writes Andrew Jacob’s of The New York Times, “Alarming hospitalization figures can be misleading because they sometimes include all children who have tested positive for coronavirus upon admission…the vast majority were asymptomatic and arrived at the hospital with other health problems, official say.” Further, he notes “the rate of pediatric Covid admissions in much of the country was still below the peak of what is typically seen with the seasonal flu.”

Even the CDC has begun to loosen some of its restrictions, shortening the quarantine period down to 5 days after contracting covid if you are asymptomatic (down from 10 days). Further, the quarantine period for those exposed to an individual with covid has also been shortened to just 5 days (even if you are unvaccinated). The guidance even states that if after being exposed it is not possible for you to isolate for 5 days, you just need to wear a mask while out and about. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, explained, “These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives.”

“Our Daily Lives”

What our “daily lives” has looked like over the past two years, along with the data above, provides the most persuasive element for an argument to return to something like pre-pandemic life. While the dramatic shut-downs taken early on in the pandemic were warranted, they have not been without considerable cost. And that cost should never be ignored when considering what our future response to covid should be.

A recent article in the New York Times portrays a heartbreaking picture of what the last two years has done to students, teachers, and principles. Students are riddled with anxiety, depression, and apathy, “The whole world is out of control, so why should I be in control?” one student said . Many are failing their classes and many more have been socially/emotionally stunted by the last two years. Students struggle with how to handle the basic daily pressures of school, from homework to socializing to speaking up in class. One assistant principle featured in the article comments on seeing a group of 9th-graders, whose last year of normal school would have been 7th grade, playing duck-duck-goose. “It is like fifth or sixth graders,” he said, “but in big bodies.”

Online learning has proven to be disastrous for adolescents both academically and socially/emotionally, often leaving those already on the fringe to spiral downwards even further. “What did you do last year?” the principle asks a student currently failing his classes, “Just played video games all day,” the student responded.

Even after returning to in-person learning: “Covid restrictions still prevent full engagement. Masks have encouraged anonymity and discouraged dialogue. “People don’t know how to communicate anymore,” said Jazlyn Korpics, 18, a senior at Liberty. “Everybody’s a robot now — their minds are warped.” (The whole article is worth reading).

But students’ education hasn’t been the only casualty.

In January of 2021 the average share of adults experiencing anxiety/depression was up to 41.1%, compared with just 11% in January, 2019. The average American’s blood pressure has risen to dangerous levels over the pandemic. Older Americans are falling victim to fraud, physical violence and neglect as family isolation and staffing shortages erode safeguards. Domestic violence rates increased 25-33% globally in 2020 and child abuse tripled in the early months of the pandemic. Deaths from drug overdoses have recently soared as have youth suicide attempts, while screen-time for America’s teens doubled to roughly eight hours a daynot including time spent in online-learning! While debates on the causes for inflation are numerous, the pandemic and quarantine policies (staying home from work if you’ve been exposed or have symptoms) have certainly led to chain supply and staffing shortages, leading to a wide range of economic consequences affecting everyone.

There is probably more that could be detailed–the small businesses that have been forced to close, the spiritual consequences of prolonged isolation, the damage done to relationships over differences on the pandemic, not to mention all of the costs that have been exacted that cannot be quantified. How can you quantify the bizarre politicization that has taken place in our country over pandemic measures? Wearing or not wearing a mask has morphed into a strange kind of virtue-signaling to those on the right or the left.

Suffice to say that our “daily lives” for the last two years has been far from normal. And, perhaps most tragic of all, some of these consequences will take years to be remedied. The aftermath will not be shut off with a switch. What will happen to the generation of students who have been sapped by the pandemic as they grow up and attempt to attend college or find careers or pursue relationships? What kind of moral calculus have we run that makes “flattening the curve” more beneficial than the cost it exacted?

I don’t want to sound too skeptical; I understand why shut-downs happened and the need to wait for vaccines and improved therapies to arrive. But those are here now. And I am grateful for the countless lives those measures have saved. But we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the countless other lives that are being lost or ruined by policies that were once, but no longer, necessary. Further, it seems like Americans have simply hit an exhaustion limit on the pandemic, writes Yascha Mounk, an associate professor from Johns Hopkins University in The Atlantic. There is a chance, like was argued above in the Wall Street Journal that the widespread infections from Omicron will introduce the wider population to covid with less severe side effects, granting a measure of natural immunity. Mounk writes:

Viruses are most dangerous when they are introduced into a population that has never had contact with them before. The more “immunologically naive” people are, the more of them are likely to suffer from bad outcomes. This suggests that the next few months could provide us with significant protection against future strains of the virus: Once a large portion of the population is exposed to Omicron, humanity will be a lot less immunologically naive, which might help us better handle future strains of the coronavirus without a significant increase in mortality.

This isn’t a foregone conclusion, however. Omicron could turn out to afford those it infects with very brief or very weak immunity against other strains. If we’re unlucky, some future strain could turn out to be (at least) as infectious as Omicron and (at least) as deadly as Delta.

Nevertheless, Americans–even those who have followed pandemic measures scrupulously over the past two years–simply don’t have the appetite for continuing to live in isolation from one another perpetually. “But the truth of the matter,” Mounk notes,

 "is that virtually all humans have, for virtually all of recorded history, faced daily risks of disease or violent death that are far greater than those that the residents of developed countries currently face. And despite the genuine horrors of the past 24 months, that holds true even now. Is our drive to live life and socialize in the face of such dangers foolhardy? Or is it inspiring? I don’t know. But good or bad, it is unlikely to change. The determination to get on with our lives is deeply and perhaps unchangeably human."

Perhaps we should accept that a life that eliminates all-risk of catching covid is not only impossible but unsustainable and the remedies taken to ensure that (lockdowns, closures, indefinite mask mandates) may be worse than the disease. We should likely change our perspective to accepting that it is only a matter of time before we get covid and should do what we can to prepare for it. We now have the resources available through vaccines and improved therapies and growing natural immunity to do just that. Therefore, we no longer need to apply blanket wide bans and closures and shut-downs. We don’t need to hang possible school closures over students’ heads like a sword of Damocles. We don’t need to accept that we will live the rest of our lives like it is March 2020.

Health at the Expense of Life

Last summer, I attended the funeral of the father of my childhood best friend. He had, tragically, died from covid. At the service there were a few hundred in attendance, the whole thing in-doors. I had been vaccinated but figured that at a gathering that large (and especially a funeral for a man who died from covid) I should wear a mask. To my surprise, I was one of maybe four or five people wearing a mask. At one point a woman leaned over to me in the service and whispered: You know, you don’t have to wear that thing in here. I simply nodded and kept my mask on.

However, after the service as I walked out into the lobby I saw the widow silently crying as someone gave her a hug. She also wasn’t wearing a mask and I wondered what she thought of covid given her husband’s death. I don’t know because I didn’t ask her about it. She had been a second mother to me growing up, providing a warmth and welcome I desperately needed as a child. I removed my mask and walked up and gave her a hug and told her what her late husband meant to me, I told her how sorry I was for what happened, how glad I was to be here to remember his life. I told her what I could not while the bottom half of my face was covered. Any attempt to share in someone’s grief, to show compassion and empathy behind a mask is a cold, muted, alienating experience. However she may have interpreted me continuing to wear a mask as I approached her, I wanted her to know without a doubt that she mattered, that her pain mattered, that her husband mattered to me. And there are more important things in life than eliminating all risk.

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk persuasively argues that things like “health and safety” are secondary goods, not primary and that a “morbid safetyism” can make “health the enemy of life.” She concludes her article with this piercing question:

Just how much “life” we are willing to give up for the sake of secondary goods? These secondary goods, like health and safety, undoubtedly make life better, but certainly don’t define it, not even in the abstract. A good life isn’t just an additive bundle of all the secondary goods. It isn’t worth more if we are healthy, or able-bodied. And anything truly great requires real risks. 

A morbid obsession with safety jettisons life in order to preserve life... I hope that the political realignments of our time will include serious pushback against the notion that policy and class preferences for eliminating risk have moved us closer to the good life, or even to the good society. A sanitized life is no way to live. 

I, for one, hope that we can begin to make the gradual shift towards bringing pandemic life to an end. There is a foolish way to approach the risks of covid that I think is genuinely wrong: refusing to wear a mask when a business asks you to, refusing to stay home when sick, refusing to get tested. But, there will always be another variant, there will always be someone with another hot take, there will always be someone moving the goal posts of what the “end” is. But cutting off a leg isn’t something that should be done without good reason, even if the knife only cuts millimeter by millimeter.

If a more deadly variant requires us to make a course correction in the future, so be it. I think the medicine, vaccines, and boosters we have now permit us to attempt a return to normal life without being reckless or unloving to others. I think the cost of perpetual pandemic life is far too high, especially for our children.

We can hold our breath for a time, but not forever.

3 thoughts on “A Whimper, Not a Bang

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