Future Tense

We Are So Close! Don’t Give Up on Pandemic Safety Yet.

Two hands put masks into a trash bin.
 Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus. 

A year after the U.S.’s initial wave of coronavirus shutdowns, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The vaccine roll-out is finally gaining steam—nearly one-quarter of Americans have now received at least one shot—and last week, President Biden announced a plan to open vaccinations up to the general public by May 1, with a goal of getting things “closer to normal” by July 4. The CDC recently released guidelines for “when you’ve been fully vaccinated,” which gave the green light to vaccinated folks to be together, indoors, maskless. (What a dream!) And even for those of us who remain unvaccinated, warmer spring weather makes for longer, more pleasant outdoor socializing.

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Understandably, we’ve turned our focus toward the optimistic. People are pondering what will happen to the economy, travel, and offices “post-pandemic”; advertisers are looking to the end of the pandemic with ads showing make-outs or “licking orgies,” implying the end of social distancing. Across the country, coronavirus policies have loosened significantly. States like Texas, Wyoming, and Mississippi have lifted mask mandates entirely, and over the past month, many states have reopened schools and relaxed restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms, and public spaces. I see signs of “normalcy” everywhere I look. A neighbor posted a photo of himself hugging his grandkids for the first time in a year. My parents started planning a vacation they’ll take once they’re fully vaccinated. Friends who have been working from home say their employers will soon be bringing them back to the office.

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It is so extremely tempting to believe we’re on the other side of what’s been a horrific, difficult year, but the pandemic is not over, and we cannot afford to pretend like it is. That’s not to say we shouldn’t accept the joy that comes to us, but that joy can’t delude us into living the fantasy of what we wish the world looked like right now. Despite some positive signs, the pandemic is still raging around us.

So here what you don’t want to hear: First, the U.S. is still seeing high daily case counts and deaths, but we have become numb to it. Remember that “second surge” in July? Our numbers are similar to those, but instead of locking down again, we’re reopening everything. Compounding that issue, potentially, is the spread of several variants, which may make the virus more transmissible. The variants may not become a huge issue in the U.S., but that’s hard to know unless we continue monitoring the spread of the virus through testing and genomic sequencing. That brings us to another piece of bad news: we’ve cut testing by about half over the past month. As one CNN headline put it: “The Race Between Variants and Vaccines in US Will Be a Close Call, Expert Warns, and Eased Restrictions Aren’t Helping.”

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Globally, that race is not going well. Cases are currently spiking across Europe; in France, new case counts have reached a level similar to their second surge, prompting several regions of the country to lockdown for the next month. Poland and Italy have also enacted new lockdowns this week. According to the New York Times, the World Health Organization says the vaccine rollout in Europe has been too slow to curb coronavirus transmission there. And compared with many other parts of the world, Europe’s doing well because they have any vaccines at all; there are huge global disparities in who has access to doses. While what’s happening elsewhere may not feel immediately pressing, consider that worldwide travel is how this pandemic spread in the first place. As long as international commerce and travel continue, outbreaks of COVID-19 won’t stay confined to just one place.

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Despite knowing all this, I have found myself focusing on the positive signs while resisting any signs to the contrary. While I used to stay up to date on case counts in my area, I’m now much more likely to read about, well, literally anything else—if I weren’t reporting on COVID-19, I suspect I wouldn’t be keeping up with it at all. I’ve gotten just a tiny taste of what it might be like to feel hope again, and alongside that hope, my resolve to be cautious has nosedived. I’m now doing things I haven’t dared to do over the past year: I took a walking meeting with a student I’d only talked to online, and afterward, I popped into a drugstore to pick out some snacks, just because I could. The other day, someone approached me while I was sitting in my car, and I instinctively opened the door to talk with them; it wasn’t until after our interaction that I realized neither of us had masks on. None of these actions put anyone at huge risk, but they do illustrate how my mind is working these days—and I suspect I’m not alone.

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Part of what’s made this last year difficult was the uncertainty: How long will this illness and suffering go on? While the end is in sight, it’s not here yet. If you’re feeling like giving up, hold on just a little bit longer. I’m reluctant to tell individuals that it falls on them to remain cautious — if there’s anything we’ve learned this year, it’s that our leaders’ decisions inevitably affect us all. And, as my colleague Shannon Palus pointed out last week, it’s often the people who have been most cautious about COVID who heed the calls to be even more careful. But as states are increasingly loosening restrictions, individual action seems to be all we have left.

As the “variants vs. vaccines” race plays out, we’re going to need to do the same things experts have advised all along: wear a mask, wash your hands, and keep appropriate distance. (If you’re vaccinated and can more safely travel, work, and socialize, please be mindful that more than three-quarters of the country—and most of the world—has not yet had that privilege.) If we loosen up too much too soon, we run the risk of prolonging the pandemic.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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