The fear arrived in late February 2020, and has remained, in one form or another, ever since. Remained? It puts its feet up on the coffee table and hogs the comforter so I can’t sleep. The mask, the distancing, the hand sanitizer, the bellowing silence of isolation, the lengthening list of restaurants and bars I loved that are gone now and forever, and the sickened, and the dead. Always the dead. Almost a thousand again today, with 86,000 new infections. It must be Wednesday.
I’ve been quietly waiting to get sick for 20 months now. Waiting to get sick feels like that moment when you slip on a patch of ice and hover for one elastic second on the edge of balance before crashing down in a flailing heap. I have been deeply fortunate, though; I’ve never experienced a healthier passage of time. The masks thwarted cold and flu season last year but good, and I haven’t had so much as a sniffle. There has always been the waiting, though. For me to get sick, or a family member. God help me, my sunshine daydream daughter, all of eight years old.
The phone rang just before 2:00pm yesterday, and on the screen appeared the name of her school. The elevator in my stomach rumbled down into the basement as I answered. It was the nurse. No, your daughter is fine, but we’re calling everyone because two students in her class have tested positive for COVID, which means she was in “close contact.”
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To nick a line from Chuck Palahniuk, we have lost cabin pressure. The call is coming from inside the house. Pick your perky phrase, but here was the moment. I had finally fallen on the ice. Not me. My little girl. I had prepared for this eventuality a thousand times in my mind like some 1950s Cold War dad making his family do nuclear war drills in his homemade bomb shelter, but in that second, I went blank with panic. An outside observer might have thought I had spiders crawling around under the skin of my face. Corpse white, no breath … dear God, what do I do now?
And then, as if nothing had happened, the phone call continued. Your daughter is showing no symptoms, the nurse told me, she feels fine, and the rapid test we gave her came back negative. It’s the antigen test and not the PCR test, so it’s only a snapshot of the moment, but we can test her as often as you like. Best thing to do now is keep her masked and watch for symptoms, but the fact that she’s been vaccinated once is the best possible news.
That’s right, I thought as my brain reactivated itself like a rebooted modem, the tests. Wait, the shots! We all have our vaccine shots, and I have the strangely simplistic cards to prove it! Getting them took less than three total hours of our lives, and on that suddenly different afternoon, they were the three most golden hours I had ever known.
The whole wide world needs to know what that feels like, needs that astonishment of relief, like the first summer breeze in April, and not just because vaccinating almost everyone will go a long way toward thwarting new variants. Everyone needs to feel that sense of safety — or at least to have the easy option of feeling that safety presented to them — because sharing it is the human thing to do.
As debate over a proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines and treatments continues to stall at the World Trade Organization (WTO), members that remain opposed — including the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the European Union — are increasingly being accused of violating human rights on an international scale.
Calls for the WTO to approve the so-called TRIPS waiver for vaccine patents and manufacturing technology are reaching a fever pitch with the emergence of the Omicron variant that was first identified in South Africa. Omicron has prompted travel bans across the world and inflamed tensions over massive global disparities in vaccine access, which experts and advocates have warned for months would allow the virus to mutate and spread outward from lower-income countries where vaccines remain out of reach for most people.
Yet Moderna and other pharmaceutical companies are not sharing “recipes” for COVID vaccines with a South African biotech firm and a World Health Organization (WHO) effort to transfer the technology necessary for making mRNA vaccines to African nations, where only about 1 in 10 people have received at least one dose of the vaccine. In the United States and Europe, monopolies on the crucial technology and know-how needed to make vaccines largely remains controlled by private pharmaceutical companies that received billions of dollars from wealthy governments to develop vaccines — and are now pulling in billions in global profit.
Way, way down at the core of my progressive beliefs is a box labeled “Enlightened Self-Interest.” I do not hew to progressive causes and advocate for progressive policies solely because I am a gleaming ball of happy light. Sometimes, and actually more often than not, I do it because helping others rise out of the morass of hate, fear, capitalism and greed actually helps me, too.
Example: I want every child to get a zillion-dollar education for free not just because I love books and learning, but because education is the wooden stake to the vampire of ignorance, and the less ignorance there is, the better my life — all our lives — will be. This is enlightened self-interest. Make no mistake, buddy-roo: I’m in this for me and my kid first. Come along for the ride, and watch as we all get well.
The sheer velocity with which these corporate drug-peddlers flee their own enlightened self-interest is a wonder to behold. If Moderna and Pfizer stopped chasing a buck around the block and used their already-galactic financial resources to crush this thing globally, they’d win near-universal praise. In fact, keep it simpler for all the Ivy League MBAs who thought this way of operating makes long-term sense: Who’s going to buy your shit if everyone is dead or in hiding?
Ironically enough, this breed of capitalism only makes sense if you analyze it from the point of view of a virus: Invade a host, burn down its resources, find another host, make some occasional changes here and there to open new markets, until there are no more markets because you burned them all down, and then you die. COVID would get this thinking immediately if it had a brain, and there’s the rub. These massive corporate drug companies are practicing nothing less than vaccine apartheid, another crime against humanity — all of humanity — for profit. Enlightened self-interest can take a number.
It’s time for the WTO to approve the TRIPS waiver for vaccine patents — to do the human thing, for the betterment of us all.
Everyone needs to feel what I do today. I’m still afraid, because COVID is a monster and the variants are coming, but I slipped on the ice and didn’t fall. After almost two years of this slow-grinding hell, everyone deserves to know what it’s like to be able to worry just a little bit less.