Two Years Is Long Enough

After multiple lockdowns, three vaccines, and one bout of COVID, I want my life back.

A photo illustration of a black-and-white hand turning off a light switch, which is inside a black image of a coronavirus particle. The image background is yellow.
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Helen Lewis is a London-based staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights.

I got my COVID-19 booster shot last week, on the first day I was eligible. My shot was delayed because I caught COVID in early December, an experience that was low-key grim: two days of shotgun sneezing, no taste or smell for a week, and a constant fatigue that didn’t abate until the holidays. I was very glad to face the coronavirus with two Pfizer doses already in my arm, and even more grateful that my parents and 91 percent of Britons in their age group are triple-jabbed.

Immunity builds to a peak in the fortnight after vaccination, and so next week I will be about the most protected a human can realistically expect to be against COVID. That reflection has inevitably led to another one: I want my life back. Thank you, coronavirus. Next.

Avoiding the virus is no longer an option; Omicron has seen to that. Almost everyone is likely to catch the variant eventually. Over Christmas, one in 10 of my fellow Londoners—one in 10!—had COVID. Thanks to Britain’s solid vaccination rates, particularly among vulnerable groups, this tsunami of infections has so far led to a daily death toll less than a fifth the size of the one we had last winter. In the United States, the picture looks bleaker, with overwhelmed hospitals and 1,500 deaths a day. Because the vaccinated can still spread the disease, Americans should probably lie low for a few more weeks, until this wave subsides. Personally, I don’t need an immediate license to party like it’s February 2020, but I want some indication from lawmakers and medical experts that restrictions won’t last forever. For any country without the discipline, collectivism, and surveillance technology of China, the zero-COVID dream is over. Two years is long enough to put our lives on hold.

And that really is how it feels here in a big city like London. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government wants to slow the spread of Omicron in England, but not enough to impose a new lockdown or provide the financial support that goes with that. (Tougher restrictions are in place in Wales and Scotland, which have more left-leaning administrations.) The English are expected “merely” to work from home if possible, and to wear masks in shops, restaurants, and other indoor spaces. Nonetheless, on a weeknight last week, the center of Soho was eerily quiet. Many of the big theater shows have suffered closures because of the self-isolation rules. As soon as the news of Omicron reached Britain, Tube journeys fell by 38 percent. No one I know had an office Christmas party.

In Britain, the era of formal business closures has been supplanted by something equally stressful: a nationwide guilt trip designed to ensure that we regulate our own behavior without the state handing out more cash. It reminds me of the constant nagging advice given to pregnant women. Of course you could have a drink, but why risk it? You could have some soft cheese, but why risk it? Why not just stay indoors, forever, until you die of old age and no one can say “I told you so”? In the pandemic, too, moral judgments are being passed off as medical ones. Why put the National Health Service in danger for the sake of your social life? (In America, the likelihood of a guilt trip varies by geography. You might not get dirty looks for shopping maskless in Florida, but the story is different in the bluest cities.)

When I caught COVID at a completely legal restaurant dinner, I was surprised that I felt ashamed. Where did that sensation come from? Some leftish pundits seem to think that demanding anything beyond the essentials of life is immoral, and that any willingness to tolerate some risk (personal and society-wide) is reckless. Recently, a prominent San Francisco doctor wrote a long Twitter thread about his otherwise healthy, triple-vaccinated 28-year-old son, whose case of COVID was no worse than a nasty cold and was apparently caught from watching a movie with a vaccinated friend. To me, his apprehensive rundown of potential treatments and his admonishment that “even low risk stuff—things that were safe last [month]—may now be risky” felt like a dispatch from an alternate universe. How can people live with this level of fear?

Yet to publicly question the current level of restrictions is to invite accusations from your more COVID-averse friends, or even strangers on social media, that you hate doctors, reject science, and actively want people to die. I am not anti-lockdown; I lived through three of them without a single illicit wine-and-cheese party or Christmas quiz, unlike senior members of the British government. I got my vaccines the minute I was allowed to. I wear a mask whenever doing so is mandated. But I’m done, profoundly done. Or at least I’m what my colleague Derek Thompson has called “Vaxxed and Cautious Until Omicron Burns Through and Then Prepared to Be Done.”

And that’s because I am desperate for a party. So desperate I would attend an enemy’s book launch. So desperate I would attend an improv-comedy night. So desperate I would see an amateur production of Shakespeare. All of these things are technically legal and available in Britain, but the hassle of masks and the worry of last-minute dropouts mean that, in practice, most of my friends have cleared their diary indefinitely. And so I work and binge-watch, and work and doomscroll, and work and see the occasional friend for coffee or dinner, when what I really want to do is freely move about in the world again—even if that means plotting my escape from a man with mild halitosis telling me his plan to reinvigorate the great American novel, or standing in line for the ladies’ room and feeling annoyed. I want to see the people I see only twice a year in normal times. I want to gossip about acquaintances. I want to wear something with a real waistband.

Perhaps you think this is shallow. You are right! Life should be shallow sometimes. I used the first lockdown to create a perfect cross-stitch replica of Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa, and the third to read and discuss several of Shakespeare’s history plays with like-minded friends on Zoom. I cannot honestly say whether these activities made me a better person.

If the health-care system needs more investment to deal with future winter COVID waves, hit me up for the taxes needed. In the meantime, we should simplify our public-health rules and wean ourselves off hygiene theater. Outdoor masking—which is still mandated in some European countries, such as Spain—is absurd. End it. The recent travel bans effectively punished South Africa for responsibly monitoring new variants, and should not be repeated. Because “‘post-vax COVID’ is a new disease,” isolation periods should be shortened to five days for the vaccinated, which would help hospitals and schools struggling with staff absences. Politicians should explain their planned endgame: Will we test and isolate forever, or will COVID one day be treated like the flu? Oh, and people should stop terrifying their children. Your kids will get COVID, if they haven’t had it already. Statistically, they will be fine. They are in more danger on the drive to school than from COVID once they get there.

As for the vaccine-hesitant, I sympathize with those who are afraid of needles and with pregnant and breastfeeding women, for whom the advice has been inconsistent, but less so with those who think that the vaccines are untested or “experimental”—a plausible concern last year but not now—and those who object to “putting chemicals in their body,” unless they eat only homegrown food and wash their hair with soap nuts. Public policy should make life more irritating for the unvaxxed—or rather, consistently less irritating for the vaxxed. (Ten years of writing about technology and privacy has shown me that most people value convenience more highly than principles, although they won’t admit it.) On vaccines for health workers, I am implacable: You have no business working in medicine if you don’t believe in science. The American and European COVID vaccines went through rigorous clinical trials, before being used on hundreds of millions of people. If you can’t accept that evidence, no other evidence will sway you.

The past two years have been tough, but the world has emerged from them with a formidable medical arsenal, as well as the knowledge that humanity has to live with COVID. Putting normal life into suspended animation back in the spring of 2020 was the right decision, but now I want to hear more about the thaw. There will be trade-offs, and there will be casualties, but you can’t remove all risk from human existence. Like most of us, I’ve followed the rules. I will continue to do so. But I really do want my life back.