In just two weeks, the omicron strain of the coronavirus has risen from a barely noticeable blip on the U.S. variant chart to the most dominant strain in the country. Case numbers are skyrocketing. Businesses are shutting down as staff members fall ill. Theaters are canceling shows. In D.C., where I live, a long-overdue indoor mask mandate is back.
A common observation in the past week or so has been that “it feels like March 2020.” That’s true in a few ways: the looming sense of dread, the tightening restrictions, the shrinking social calendar, and, for many of us, the growing list of infected loved ones to worry about. But our current COVID situation is a lot more complicated than it was back then. Last March, and even last holiday season, the responsible course of action was simple: To keep ourselves healthy and protect vulnerable populations, those of us who could stay home should have stayed home. We canceled nonessential indoor activities and kept any social gatherings small. It sucked big time, but we comforted ourselves with the knowledge that we were making a temporary sacrifice to keep people from dying. It was worth it.
These days, there are loads more factors to consider. Some of us are vaccinated, but with a few different types of vaccines, all with differing rates of efficacy. We know immunity wears off after a while, and we were all vaccinated at different times. Some of us got one or two shots, others three, and some have immunity from previous infections, too. Tests are more widely available now, and there are two different kinds, each with their own trade-offs of availability, accuracy, and expense. The end result of these multiplying variables is that families and social circles that take COVID seriously are having increasingly unwieldy conversations about who’s taking which precautions and how. Sure, your family members may be vaxxed, but are they boosted? Maybe their rapid tests were negative—but did they take them 12 hours ago, or four? The emergence of omicron has made even basic precautions confusing, in part because it seems to take less time to incubate in the body than other strains. At least one epidemiologist now believes that COVID vaccines accelerate the immune response such that you could even have symptoms before you’re infectious, aka before you show up positive on a rapid test. Also, I guess I have to learn what a bronchus is? Because omicron multiplies really quickly there? Which means we should maybe be putting the rapid test swabs down our throats, instead of up our noses? I don’t even understand most of this myself, so I am not sure how I am I supposed to communicate all this to the 20 not-extremely-online cousins I’m seeing on Christmas Eve.
The other side of this coin is that, unlike last year, we are now fully aware that the COVID-19 pandemic could last for months or years to come. We’re not biding our time until the vaccines drop—we are adapting to living this way for a good while longer. We are lonely and tired, and many of us are grieving. The prospect of another winter with limited human interaction is terrifying. Many of us are personally safer because of our vaccines and tests, but we don’t really know by how much (are we less safe because of omicron, which is insanely transmissible, or safer, because the symptoms seem milder?). Meanwhile, on a public health level, we are still teetering on the edge as the virus and the vast numbers of unvaccinated people threaten to obliterate an already-broken health care system. Which raises the question: What the hell are we supposed to do?
I don’t necessarily mean that in the most literal and urgent sense. There are plenty of explainers out there that will tell you how to mitigate the risks at your upcoming holiday gatherings and reassure you that we don’t need to bring our entire lives to a standstill this time around. I’m talking about something a little bit more abstract. What I’m trying to say is, it’s getting much harder to chart out a life with all these constantly shifting factors at play while bearing the cumulative psychological weight of nearly two years spent flailing in various registers of distress. So, naturally, there is growing desire among the previously COVID-cautious to do less—to get boosted and tested, and otherwise live as normal. With the protections of the vaccines, it’s a reasonable urge. For lower-risk individuals who took strict measures to protect everyone else in the first waves of the pandemic, omicron appears to be a turning point.
Within the span of a few weeks, the current landscape of knowns and unknowns, along with the snowballing frustration with living a cloistered life, has produced a new outlook among some people who maintained stringent lockdowns during the first major waves of the pandemic. Many of us who once tried to avoid contracting COVID at all costs, to protect both ourselves and higher-risk community members, have now accepted that we’ll probably get infected at some point and are merely trying to limit our exposure, especially before major events we really want to attend, or limit our spread if we test positive. Reliably protected from worst-case scenarios by the vaccines, our risk calculus has shifted yet again.
But that change in perspective and its attendant change in behavior imply another major shift, one that’s getting glossed over in discussions of whether or not we should cancel our holiday get-togethers. Before vaccines were widely available, recommendations for responsible conduct in the time of COVID almost always centered on protecting high-risk populations. Last year, around this time, I saw a social media post from an acquaintance that said, with all certainty, “If you travel for the holidays this year, you will kill someone.” That was extreme even then—and obviously untrue—but it captured a kind of moral consensus that had emerged among left-leaning people of relative privilege. Taking unnecessary risks by getting on a plane or gathering indoors for fun was deemed selfish, a sign that one wasn’t willing to endure a temporarily dampened social life to save the literal lives of those who bore the disproportionate brunt of the pandemic: essential workers, the elderly, people of color, the immunocompromised.
Now, that line of criticism is muted. There are no moralizing screeds about the callousness of those who decide their holiday parties are important enough to warrant the increased risk. Few people are begging us to cancel our flights for the sake of the TSA agents and flight attendants who will come in contact with thousands of travelers in coming days. We know that the bigger the omicron surge gets, the more deaths it will bring, whether or not the illness it causes proves milder on average than delta’s. That basic math hasn’t changed in the past year. What’s changed is our capacity to care.
Two years into the pandemic, the consistent refrain about how “we can’t personal responsibility our way out of a public health crisis” has started to sink in. If the pandemic has made anything clear, it’s that appealing to people’s morality, to our responsibility to one another, to whatever frail covenant might hold a community or country together, is not enough to engender the massive behavioral shifts necessary to minimize the spread of a deadly virus. It seems that the main thing that convinces people to take COVID precautions is not fear for our collective well-being, but fear for oneself: For all the political polarization around vaccines, the people who are most likely to be vaxxed are not Democrats, but the elderly—those with the highest risk of dying from the virus. This summer, as delta spread across the South and Midwest, vaccination rates spiked in its wake. For two years, as we’ve tracked the pandemic responses of political leaders and corporate titans, we’ve seen that personal gain has trumped public good. That realization is a hard and embittering one—one that would make anyone yearn to run into the arms of loved ones at the holidays, COVID risks be damned. To come to that realization after the last dark, lonely COVID winter, after all the energy spent persuading one’s parents to isolate and uncles to get vaccinated and customers to pull up their masks and kids to pay attention to Zoom school, might also empty one’s reserves of stick-to-itiveness.
I’m not suggesting that every single usually responsible person has stopped thinking about their impact on others. In the Atlantic, for instance, Ed Yong wrote about canceling the 40th birthday party he’d planned for this past weekend. “Omicron is spreading so rapidly that if someone got infected at my party, my decision to host it could easily affect people who don’t know me, and who had no say in the risks that I unwittingly imposed upon them,” he wrote. As for his own COVID decision-making, he went on, “instead of asking ‘What’s my risk?,’ I’ve tried to ask ‘What’s my contribution to everyone’s risk?’ ” Surely that question is still animating plenty of people’s decision-making as the omicron wave descends.
But even so, some of the people I know who were most exacting about COVID restrictions, even post-vaccine, in an effort to protect the immunocompromised at large, are now comfortable hosting large events with the justification that people who don’t want to take that risk can just stay home. “Socializing is selfish” has become “stop blaming people for getting COVID.” Maybe this is where we were always going to end up; with an endemic disease, it doesn’t make sense to stay in emergency mode forever. Remaining isolated is bad for our health in other ways—we know this intimately by now, because we’ve lived it.
The ugly truth revealed by omicron is that we have accepted some amount of excess death as a reasonable cost of resuming certain aspects of social life. We did so much for so long—there were the anti-maskers and circuit partiers, sure, but there have also been millions of people who gave up funerals and graduations and birthdays and reunions to safeguard not just themselves but everyone else, including those who refused to do so much as wear a mask in a grocery store. It may be that vaccinations injected just enough personal responsibility into the equation, and allayed enough personal fear, to render the vaxxed less willing to give it all up again.
Life has moved on, as it must, as we’ve hit the limits of our willingness to make pandemic sacrifices that are only partially reciprocated by our fellow countrymen, and as we’ve realized there is no escape hatch out of this pandemic. This moment isn’t at all like March 2020, when every new death seemed needless, like a fresh shame on the nation. Since then, thanks in large part to the vaccines, COVID deaths have become far more preventable. The response to omicron has made clear that they’ve also come to seem, if not acceptable, at least somewhat inevitable. It’s not necessarily right, but it’s where we are.