Masks and social distancing may be temporary measures. But what if they aren’t?
When COVID-19 turned our world upside down in March, I had a gut feeling life would never be the same. Because we adjusted to pandemic-living so seamlessly. Almost effortlessly.
In a matter of weeks, we conditioned ourselves to recoil if someone got “too close” or moved in for a hug. We added “Hope you’re staying safe!” to our email greetings. We congratulated ourselves for finding ways to do previously-unthinkable things on Zoom — like pole dancing classes and weddings.
When ads for designer masks popped up on Facebook, I knew we'd hit the point of no return; a cottage industry was suddenly turning into big business.
My friends told me I was crazy to think things would stay this way.
“Don’t worry,” they said. “This is just temporary. Life will go back to normal after we flatten the curve.”
You remember flattening the curve, don’t you? It was the marching order Dr. Fauci gave us for defeating Coronavirus in mid-March. That was our collective mission.
That was our goal.
Most people have forgotten that flattening the curve wasn’t supposed to keep the virus from infecting anyone at all — or wipe the virus from the face of the earth (good luck eradicating the wicked cousin of the common cold). We were just hoping to slow the spread so hospitals could accommodate those who needed care. Because if the virus moved too quickly, too many people would show up at emergency rooms at the same time. Our feeble health care infrastructure would be pulled “apart at the seams,” and we would lose people needlessly.
Yes, masks and drive-by birthdays were annoying and inconvenient, but they were small prices to pay to keep our health care system from collapsing. We were willing to do whatever it took to save lives.
And besides, this was only our “temporary” normal.
Then, in early May, something amazing happened: we reached our goal. We managed to slow the spread of the virus and relieve the strain on emergency rooms and ICUs.
We were one step closer to getting our lives back — or so we thought. But we wre wrong. Flattening the curve wasn’t enough.
As states prepared to re-open and allow struggling Americans to restore their livelihoods, health care officials warned that another terrifying wave of deaths would soon overwhelm hospitals. The CDC projected more than 3,000 deaths each day by June 1. Like the second wave of the 1918 Spanish flu, the next phase of the pandemic could easily dwarf the lives lost at the mid-April peak.
Now we had a new goal: we had to keep doing what we were doing to avoid a spike in cases that would send tens of thousands of patients to overflowing hospitals.
So we put our hope of life returning to “normal” on hold.
That meant getting used to more social distancing. Buying more masks (why not get an assortment of fashionable PPE? May as well look cool while we’re staying “safe”). Honing skills to teach our our kids in their bedrooms. Cancelling that gym membership and buying a stationary bike on Amazon.
We told ourselves we wouldn’t have to do it much longer. Well, maybe until we found a vaccine , which might take a year or so. But still, our “temporary normal” wouldn’t last forever.
And then in early June, it happened again. We hit our goal.
The curve had spiked— but not nearly as high as we feared. By the end of June, daily deaths had even dropped to 773. COVID-19 was still claiming many lives, but thankfully, it wasn’t straining our hospitals. Once again, there was hope that life might return to normal soon.
But once again, we were wrong. We found out that dodging a second wave of deaths wasn’t good enough. Public health officials gave us a new reason to maintain our “temporary” normal: an outbreak of “hot spots” around the country.
As millions of Americans emerged from lockdown, cases — not deaths — doubled, soaring from 1 million to 2 million in a month. Granted, it was a crazy-high number, but it wasn't entirely surprising since most states had undertaken a massive effort to expand testing. Between late May and late July, daily testing nationwide nearly doubled from an average of 410,000 to more than 775,000. If more people were circulating with a highly-contagious virus still on the loose, and hundreds of thousands were being tested every day, it stood to reason the number of cases would increase dramatically.
Yet despite this new wave of infections, hospitals still weren’t overwhelmed. We were losing lives to Coronavirus, but not because of a lack of resources. We were losing them for the reasons we lose millions of people each year to other diseases: age, poor health, and pre-existing conditions.
But that didn’t seem to matter to public health officials.
Because they were no longer concerned about straining public resources. They were no longer worried about losing thousands of lives each day. They didn’t even seem to care how many infected people got sick enough to go to the hospital — or if they got sick at all.
Our new goal, the experts told us, wasn’t to just flatten the curve, but to “squash” it.
And squashing the curve meant making sure the number of people who tested positive, even if they never became symptomatic, went down and stayed down — for weeks and months.
Most of us didn’t give much thought to this at the time (we were too busy trying to keep our jobs and our sanity and “stay safe”). But reaching our newest goal would prove to be a lot harder than the others. With nearly 1 million tests being administered nationwide every a day and sporadic pockets of no-maskers and other non-compliers always popping up, every state was in constant danger of becoming a “hot spot.” Moreover, locking down “hot spots” to extinguish outbreaks was only temporary a fix; as soon as a state with low infections re-opened, cases surged again.
The fight against Coronavirus had become a crazy whack-a-mole carnival game.
But we never stopped to ask ourselves what it would it take to get our lives back or when it would happen. We just kept telling ourselves we needed to keep doing what we were doing until we were told to stop.
This has been the pattern for the last six months: whenever we reached a goal or came close to reaching the goal, the goal would suddenly change. The finish line was always pushed further out of reach, and our “temporary” normal would extend a little longer.
Even now, when there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel — as Coronavirus has clearly become less lethal, now killing far fewer of the people that it infects, as the number of Coronavirus cases falls to its lowest level in two months — there’s still no end in sight.
Throughout it all, we’ve pinned our hopes on the one thing we believed would bring us back to normal, no matter how often the goal post moved.
We told ourselves that once the best and brightest minds found the weapon to defeat this enemy, our lives would return to “normal.”
But this week we found out that’s never going to happen.
In an August 23 news conference, the World Health Organization confirmed what I’ve suspected for months. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus explained that while a vaccine will be a “vital tool” in the fight against COVID-19, it won’t end the pandemic. Instead, the public must learn to live with the virus and “make permanent adjustments to their daily lives” to ensure it remains at “low levels” — regardless of how many lives it claims (or doesn’t claim). Regardless of whether hospitals are (or aren’t) overwhelmed. And if cases and clusters pop up again, we should prepare ourselves for more lockdowns.
Then came Ghebreyesus’ ominous warning: “[W]e will not, we cannot go back to the way things were.”
You understand what this means, don't you?
Get ready to expand your wardrobe of designer masks. Forget about ever having close physical contact with people you don’t “know.” Say goodbye to large gatherings that don’t include thermal body scans and other “safety” protocols. Get used to making fewer trips to distant family and friends. Always be prepared to homeschool your kids at the drop-of-a-hat. Brace yourself for sporadic unemployment from future lockdowns.
Because our life now is our “new normal.”
BTW, did you hear about W.H.O.’s announcement on the nightly news? Maybe sandwiched between stories about the Kenosha unrest and Election 2020 drama? I’m guessing not.
Every day, public health officials remind us what we need to do to stay “safe," but they haven't bothered to share the truth bomb the W.H.O. quietly dropped. They aren't telling us we’ll never be “safe” enough to get our lives back.
And I think I know why.
Most Americans are still laboring under the delusion that if we just keep doing what we’re doing, life will return to "normal" one day. But what if most of us knew this would never happen? Would we be willing to mask-up for the rest of our lives — for the sake of staving off a virus that claims 2/10th of one percent of the population while dooming 260 million to starvation? Would we be willing to submit to never-ending lockdowns that could ultimately claim 10 times as many lives as Coronavirus, itself?
More importantly, what if we had known — from the onset of this pandemic — that our lives would never return to “normal”?
I think most of us would have had a very different reaction to COVID-19 protocols if we had known this six months ago. But clinging to the hope of eventually returning to lives we once knew persuaded us to comply — again and again.
We may never know what public health officials and government leaders knew or when they knew it, whether they ever believed we would return to “normal” or if it was always a pipe dream.
But after living our “new normal” for 6 months, one thing is clear: we’re getting used to it. And if it continues another six months, we’ll probably never think to challenge it.
While it can take between 18 to 254 days to form a new habit, it only takes 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic in most humans. After engaging in a routine for a year, it doesn’t just become second nature to us; it becomes so ingrained that we forget what our life was like before our habit started.
Like the frog in a slowly boiling pot of water, the longer we endure heat, the more accustomed we become to being cooked.
I do my best to avoid pissing off other frogs who are trying to “stay safe” in the slow-boiling pot. But it’s really starting to wear on me, and I’m not sure how much longer I’ll have the patience to stay in here with them.
This morning I stopped by a coffee bar to grab a latte. When the 20-something hipster behind the counter saw me grumbling as I adjusted the buff that was fogging up my glasses, she shook her head and sighed.
“I know, it kinda sucks, right?” Then she brightened. “But don’t worry, it will all be over soon.”
“You think so?” I asked.
She laughed. “Well, I guess I’m just trying to stay positive. I mean, it can’t go on like this forever, can it?”
As she handed me my drink, I briefly considered sharing the W.H.O. bombshell. But a part of me knew it was a reality she probably wouldn’t allow herself to accept. As frogs go, she seemed fairly content already. The heat didn’t seem to bother her so much. In another six months, I’m guessing it wouldn’t bother her at all.
I am not that frog. And if you’re reading this, you’re probably not, either.
At some point in the not-so-distant future, we will have to decide if we’re willing to make life on the stove our “new normal" -- because this will be our “new normal” if we choose to accept it.
There will come a time, my friends, when each of us will be forced to choose a path: keep cooking or jump. Not every frog will have the guts to leap from the pot. But if enough of us decide to jump together, maybe others will follow.
Until then, none of us will really be “safe.”
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