Most people have at some point in their lives been asked to entertain a version of the cheesy question, “If you knew you had one day to live, what would you do?” It’s often posed as a playful game or essay topic or used by self-help gurus to prod people into trying to get a deeper sense of their priorities. But it’s time for everybody to start asking themselves a different question: If COVID-19 will be here forever, is this what you want the rest of your life to look like? In this case, it’s not an idle or theoretical exercise. It will be central to how we choose to live and function as a society for years or even decades to come.
Ever since the onset of COVID-19, we have more or less been living under an illusion. That illusion was that it would reach some sort of natural endpoint — a point at which the pandemic would be declared “over,” and we could all more or less go back to normal. The original promise of taking “15 days to slow the spread” or six weeks to “flatten the curve” has long since been reduced to a punchline.
In March of 2020, the outside estimates were that this coronavirus period would come to an end when safe and effective vaccines became widely available. Even the infamous Imperial College London report, viewed as draconian at the time for its estimate of up to 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. absent sustained intervention, predicted that its mitigation strategies “will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available.” Yet vaccines have been available for anybody who wants one for nearly six months, and our leaders have ignored the obvious off-ramp. The CDC backtracked on guidance and said that vaccinated people must wear masks in public, and many people and jurisdictions have listened. For example, Montgomery County, Md., has an extraordinarily high vaccination rate — with 96 percent of the eligible over-twelve population having received at least one dose and 87 percent of them being fully vaccinated. By its own metrics, the county has “low utilization” of hospital beds. Yet the county requires masks indoors — including in schools. In Oregon, vaccinated people are required to wear masks even outdoors. And it isn’t just liberal enclaves. A new Economist/YouGov poll found that eight in ten Americans report having worn a mask in the past week at least “some of the time” when outside their homes, with 58 percent masking “always” or “most of the time.” If masking has remained so widespread among adults months after vaccines became widely available, why will it end in schools after vaccines become available for children?
When operating under the assumption that there is a time limit on interventions, it’s much easier to accept various disruptions and inconveniences. While there have been ferocious debates over whether various mitigation strategies have ever been necessary, we should at least be able to agree that the debate changes the longer such restrictions are required. People making sacrifices for a few weeks, or even a year, under the argument that doing so saves lives is one thing. But if those sacrifices are indefinitely extended, it’s a much different debate.
There are many Americans who willingly locked themselves down and who still favor some restrictions. But what if this were to drag on for five years? Ten years? Twenty years? Do you want your children to be forced to wear masks throughout their childhoods? Do you want to bail on weddings if some guests may be unvaccinated? Skip future funerals? Ditch Thanksgiving when there’s a winter surge? Keep grandparents away from their grandkids whenever there’s a new variant spreading? Are you never going to see a movie in a theater again?
These are not wild scenarios. The Delta variant has led to surges throughout the world months after vaccines became widely available. Despite being a model of mass vaccination, Israel has been dealing with a significant Delta spike. To be clear, vaccines still appear to be quite effective at significantly reducing the risk of hospitalization and death. But if the virus continues to adapt and people need to get booster shots every six months or so, it seems there’s a good chance that the coronavirus will continue to spread for a very long time. So the question is how we, as individuals, and society as a whole, should adapt to this reality. Instead of thinking in terms of policies that may be tolerable for a very short period of time, it’s time to consider what would happen if such policies had to continue forever.
Whatever arguments were made to justify interventions early on in the pandemic, post-vaccine, we are in a much different universe. There is a negligible statistical difference in the likelihood of severe health consequences between vaccinated people who go about their business without taking extra precautions, and those who take additional precautions. Yet having to observe various protocols in perpetuity translates into a reduced quality of life. Put another way, the sort of question we need to start asking ourselves is not whether we can tolerate masking for one trip to the grocery store, but whether we want to live in a society in which we can never again go shopping without a mask.
People may ultimately come to different conclusions about the amount of restrictions they want to accept, regardless of the time frame. But at a minimum, we need to dispense with the framework that assumes the end of COVID-19 is just around the corner and instead recognize that it’s likely here to stay.