“Today was great!” my 7-year-old exclaimed recently when I came home from work. By cosmic standards, her day wasn’t that special. She went to the playground, where she finally mastered the monkey bars. She visited the history museum—or at least its gift shop. She got “really big” nachos. She went to the kids’ art studio. Two years ago, visiting a museum and a nacho joint was so common, it wouldn’t even have registered. What did you do today? Oh, nothing. But our standards are no longer cosmic.
“Today was great,” she said, and my wife’s eyes welled up at her enthusiasm. So much had been missed already—a quarter of our daughter’s life lived in shadow. She learned to read and ride a bike. She ceased to be a little kid and became just a kid—in appearance, ability, and aspiration. And as of the end of November, she’s “fully” vaccinated. It happened just in time for another version of the virus, the one with more mutations: Omicron.
Today was great. One can feel only despair about this latest shift. The Greek-letter naming convention, wisely adopted to avoid stigmatizing places, was already dour, as if each new variant were scripted as an enemy in science fiction. Omicron seems even worse—quicker to spread than the more transmissible strain of an already-transmissible virus. What are we supposed to do now?
What were we supposed to do before? Just hold out for the hospitals, we heard in spring 2020. Just wear masks, we heard that summer. Hold off on travel, the winter said. Test often, warned the spring. Just wait for the vaccines to be deemed safe for kids, entreated early fall. Now it’s winter again, and even with vaccines, next year feels no more encouraging than this one. Just more of the same.
This calamity has been foreseen, over and over again. Everyone knew that absent global vaccinations, the virus would mutate, and that it could also hide in wildlife and remerge, maybe stronger and more dangerous. Delta proved the point, and yet nothing changed. Now that Omicron is here, and apparently worse, it’s easy to conclude that nothing ever will.
This is the moment in a piece about the pandemic when I acknowledge that I have been lucky. Not everyone can work from home and educate their kids. The elderly, and then the working poor and people of color, have always been at much greater risk of dying from COVID-19 than me or my immediate family. The developing world had it worse and still does. Medical professionals, already having attended so much death, are long past their breaking point. For a while, the more fortunate could sail the big ocean that was the pandemic, with enough cargo to address their basic needs. We thought if we could make it through those first weeks, or months, or until vaccines, then we’d arrive at some new shore. Things did get better, of course, but landfall never really came. That disappointment offered another source of gloom.
The new despair wells up from the gap between what we knew and what we did, like sulfur seeping from deep-sea vents. Having had the chance to tame the virus and failed to do so, and then fallen prey to exactly the risks that we foresaw—this is a new burden. Omicron might not be worse when measured in human lives: The pile of 800,000 bodies in the U.S. doesn’t have to double, yet again, in size. But it is a different burden.
The holidays only deepen the lows. This is a time of joy and warmth and cold and excess. Even if few will (or should) change their holiday plans this month, we have all been forced to ponder the matter. Two weeks’ worth of news took us from It’s finally safe to have Grandma in the house with the kids to Is it even safe for Grandma to leave her house? No matter what you do, it comes topped with a thick head of new emotional terror. People hoped that visits would be free of stress this year, compared with last. But underneath that hope was another, equally important one: that this relief would feel more permanent. That we would feel as if we had made some progress.
We took precautions, at times too many of them, and thought we were acting for the greater good. But it could never be enough—masking up at Trader Joe’s doesn’t vaccinate the global South. The failure of this righteousness only adds more gloom. Why did we even bother? And why keep at it now? I am vaccinated, Gen Z says, so I’m just gonna, like, do me.
Quitting has been on the agenda. The “Great Resignation” suggested that COVID-19 might open a wormhole to better lives. But the emotional bills for those moves are now coming due. I quit my professorship at Georgia Tech this year in part because I despaired of fighting a state government that refused to take precautions in the face of all the other reasons for despair. Staring down the sorrow of giving up a home and life at an already fragile moment, I moved to Washington University in St. Louis, which had imposed a mask and vaccine mandate, like most private universities. I spent the fall in the classroom, in person, with members of Generation C—that’s C for COVID.
As the term wore on and the leaves ruddied and Thanksgiving loomed, normalcy of a sort set in. Some students started bringing water or coffee to class again, carefully lowering their masks to take sips. In such moments, I’d catch uncanny glimpses of their faces—their entire faces—and find myself amid familiar strangers. The unexpected shape of a student’s chin could open up a world of mysteries. What else had I been missing? What would I never know I’d missed, because widespread and effective control of the virus never really came? Those losses have been accruing, and nobody has had time to grieve them. Omicron issued a margin call on all that grief.
The Omicron variant’s infections may yet prove to be mild. That outcome would be better than the alternative, but it still can manufacture dread. For one part, the public is now accustomed to medical professionals’ perverse understanding of “mild,” namely: It probably won’t put you in the hospital or kill you; as for long COVID, who even knows? For another, the uncertainty surrounding Omicron’s virulence, mated to the scientific bureaucracy’s reliance on “too early to tell” messaging, makes the mere contemplation of the new strain deeply unsettling. And for yet a third, all that uncertainty has produced a new deluge of coronavirus content, this article included. That coverage may be justified—the public ought to be informed—but a surfeit of information also ratchets up anxiety. Even if this strain is less bad than it might have been, only dumb luck will have made it so. That’s neither victory nor a sign that the emergency is over.
The coronavirus was once “novel” because it was new. Now it feels both ancient and eternal. Having endured the emergence of two major strains even since the rollout of vaccines, a difficult thought is planted in my head: What if the pandemic never ends? The scientists tell me that “endemicity” is now the goal: COVID-19 will never go away, but eventually we will be able to control it. That sounds good, but we have just spent a year proving that we cannot control it, even when the tools for control appear to be at hand.
“Now is the time to overreact,” I wrote in The Atlantic in March 2020, a few days after the global pandemic received its formal declaration. I hoped that a feeling of dread might spur excessive action—lockdowns or rent cancellation or border closings—whatever might have brought the virus to heel. But we have overreacted less and less with each cycle of outbreak, and watched new setbacks follow every victory. That gloomy slog has begotten new generations of dread.
Having lived through the past two years on Earth, one should be allowed to wonder if our present circumstances might persist endlessly. Perhaps as superstition, to ward off its arrival through voodoo. Perhaps as hostility toward the too-early-to-tell recklessness of bureaucratic scientism. Perhaps as sensation, to let despair’s heat burn off any useless hope or fear that still remains. Perhaps as practice, to gird ourselves for the worst-case scenario. What if it never ends?
Back at the start of the pandemic, when my youngest was 5 and we lived in another house in a different state, and I worked a different job, she used to talk about what we’d do “after coronavirus.” So many plans. Museums and dining out. Seeing family and going to Disney World. Maybe visiting one of those children’s amusement centers full of inflatable play structures that seemed like a disease vector even before things got weird, and which she has now outgrown anyway.
Everyone knows the past is gone, but now the past’s future feels lost too. I hope it’s not, but I can’t shake the feeling.