Trying to remember March 2020 feels like sticking your head into a parallel universe. This time last year, Americans were just going into lockdown—presumably for two weeks—to protect themselves from a mysterious but deadly virus. We disinfected mail but didn’t wear masks. Few of us knew that COVID-19 symptoms could last for months, that you might lose your sense of smell, or that your toes might break out in purple lesions. The possibility that millions would die was real but incomprehensible.
The pandemic today is almost unrecognizably different. In the United States, an acute, terrifying catastrophe has given way to the monotony of lowered expectations. There are no makeshift morgues in the streets. Businesses are opening despite a thousand American deaths a day. This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered New York City employees back to work, regardless of their vaccination status, while case counts in the city are on a high plateau. The pervasive sense is that we can’t wait forever for the pandemic to end.
When, exactly, will we reach a point that could be considered a finish line? It’s the natural question, but I think it’s a counterproductive one. Not only because, as Anthony Fauci told me recently, the most honest answer is “We just don’t know.” The inability to give a definitive answer is contributing to misperception of risk, conflating better with good enough. It’s also true that much of what defined the COVID-19 crisis at its worst is no longer an issue. Many health-care workers are vaccinated, and the need to “flatten the curve” is in the past. Tests are widely available, and there are better treatments for the disease. Death rates are falling quickly.