Omicron peaks in LA Why do we enlighten the cautious?
California recorded a million new COVID cases last week, hospitals are overwhelmed, and it feels like everyone has Omicron — or knows someone who has — because illness, boredom, and… burnout is already defining the new year. Could this last part explain why the current pandemic peak is met with a collective shrug?
As an arts writer who has watched theaters and concert halls go dark for the better part of two years, in the name of public safety, but now watches those same venues boldly open their doors to what many people are calling ‘the new normal’, I’m baffled. As the number of cases breaks records and the number of deaths rises again, why now? I want to share the optimism but I can’t. I feel like I’m energized.
For the first two years of the pandemic, “Don’t get sick” was the constant refrain. But now popular sentiment has shifted to a version of “It’s okay if you get sick, because if you get boosted and vaccinated, the symptoms will Probably be gentle. Better get it over with.”
In this climate, it’s easy to feel foolish if you choose to remain extremely vigilant – as if everything you’ve come to believe about the virus is so dramatic. When you walk past a group of people in a crowded bar with your N95 mask on, you see a collective stare that says, “Lighten up.” Scrolling through social media can make you feel like you invented the pandemic from scratch.
This is a vast oversimplification, but in my opinion, there are three basic tribes when it comes to pandemic caution. The first two are numerous: the paradoxical anti-vaxxers and anti-mask my-body-my-choice, who flouted basic health and safety precautions throughout the crisis; and the COVID believers in the middle of the road who masked up when necessary, dutifully got their shots and sometimes their boosters — but also made a point of getting back to their lives and showing situational flexibility to achieve some semblance of normality.
The third tribe, which I claim to belong to, is what my dad wryly calls “COVID crazies.” I’m not thrilled with this nickname, but I’m a big girl with a funny sense of humor, so I’ll take it. Especially if people like me can benefit from a little grace and understanding during this difficult and confusing time.
The COVID nuts may have wiped their errands and let their mail mellow a little longer than the rest of you. But for the most part, we try to fit in. The hallmark trait of a COVID nut is extreme caution. We are highly risk averse and tend to believe deeply in the value of collective action and the power of communities working together to curb the ravages of the pandemic. We threw ourselves behind the first rallying cry of the pandemic: “We are all in this together! and never quite stopped.
I felt unfairly judged by some editorials that came out after the vaccines claiming that people still wearing masks were doing so for blatant political reasons. party spirit. The insinuation — that continued COVID caution was a reverse “own the libs” move aimed at agitating the far right — upset me. For some of us, masks have kept our hypochondria and extreme anxiety at bay.
It’s painful to remember the early days of the pandemic, when we didn’t know much about how the virus spread, and felt like it could be anywhere and everywhere. at any time. Many young people like me were dying.
My daughters were 3 and 11 when the nightmare started, and the fear of not seeing them grow up made me cry. I started checking on my parents several times a day. If I didn’t hear from them, my stomach would tighten with worry and my palms would sweat. I couldn’t eat. I lost weight. The laughter didn’t come easily.
Until my family was vaccinated, we operated life in a bubble. My husband and I have had the extreme privilege of working from home, and we have been blessed with a large yard for our children to play in and for the occasional social distance visit.
Most people we knew were basically on the same page, but broken bones started to appear after the shot. I still wasn’t completely comfortable letting my guard down. My youngest daughter was not yet allowed to be vaccinated, and I fell into the camp of extra-cautious parents – always distanced and masked to reduce her risk. I thought to myself that when she finally got vaccinated, our family would make our grand entrance onto the new world stage.
“Just a few more months” became my mantra as life in the pandemic dragged on uncomfortably — like the reboot of “Sex and the City.”
My daughter was fully vaccinated the day after Thanksgiving, just in time for the Omicron push. The masks therefore remained. The social circle remained tiny. Disinfectant and rapid, abundant tests.
There are too many vulnerable people – the elderly, unvaccinated babies and toddlers, immunocompromised, frontline and essential workers – to focus only on ourselves and what we anticipate will be a variant with mild symptoms. And while I think the virus is on its way to becoming endemic, it’s definitely not here yet, and probably won’t be until it kills almost a million Americans, maybe. to be more. Giving up the fight now, letting my guard down, seems like madness. Yet that is exactly what I am being asked to do in the pandemic twilight of Omicron.
In some ways, the thought of succumbing to the virus seems relief – of opening the door and letting the boogie man in. From what I’ve heard from many friends and family members who have fallen for Omicron over the past month, it really isn’t that scary after all.
But the thing is, I remember.
I remember the quivering fear in a young dancer’s voice when I interviewed her about the Metropolitan Opera closing in March 2020. How she cried on the phone from her apartment in New York when she started talking about hiding inside with his partner and grandchild as ambulance sirens blared day and night and the hospital next door erected a makeshift morgue.
I remember the traumatized family members I interviewed for a series of pandemic obituaries – the agony they expressed over the death of their loved ones alone. The grown daughter who told me her dad just went to the bank and then he got sick. And then he died. She recalled how she tried to protect his health by watching the desserts he ate at family dinners. How he still managed to steal a cookie, and how it always made her laugh. How lost she looked as she told this story.
I remember the shock and awe I felt when I learned that the Hollywood Bowl would go dark for the entire summer – the first time in its nearly 100 year history. A story that included the Great Depression and two world wars. The silent numbness in the voices of the executives I interviewed. The implications – loss of ticket revenue, loss of jobs, loss of sense of community and togetherness — which stretched as wide as the valley beyond the famous place. The sickening feeling that we had been in this disaster for much longer than expected.
I remember booking Zoom kindergarten tours when my daughter was 5. I remember taking her to the closed campus of a school we thought she would like – how she watched the empty playground through a chain-link fence, how we dusted a window to watch the sterile corridors. The weeds in the schoolyards, the trash piling up in the breeze at the edge of the sidewalk.
I remember these things happened. And I know they could breed again. What Greek letter comes after Omicron?
“Only a few more months,” I tell myself.
When the hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, when the disease isn’t at crisis level, when I can be sure my parents will be fine if they get infected. Maybe then I’ll throw off my mask and join the seething crowd.