Part of the Series
Despair and Disparity: The Uneven Burdens of COVID-19
Climate scientists have been warning for years about the menace of “feedback loops.” A feedback loop takes place when the right set of circumstances creates a situation that feeds upon itself, growing stronger with every cycle.
The not-so-frozen tundra of Siberia serves as perfect current example. Human-caused warming melts the permafrost in the ground, allowing the release of billions of tons of methane from the soil. That methane enters the atmosphere and warms it more, causing more permafrost to melt and release more methane. Round and round we go.
As we inch toward the thousandth day of COVID-19 in the U.S., another kind of feedback loop has formed itself. Instead of wind and rain, this one is made of people and policy, an extension of capitalism you could see coming a mile off with the right kind of eyes.
I can even pinpoint the day this COVID feedback loop began to eat itself, and us: March 20, 2020. On that day, the first of what became a flood tide of jowly capitalists went on the cable news networks with the demand that “low-risk,” low-wage workers should go back to work and just let the virus “burn through” their ranks.
The intervening months have descended into a lethal tug of war between people who believe the science and are willing to take precautions to avoid even more mass death, and the “my freedom” people who are willing to let COVID carry off millions of people rather than subject themselves to the gross tyranny of… masks and reasonable health measures? If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not believed it possible, and would have walked out of any movie daring to peddle such nonsense in a script.
The script itself, while absurd, is also simplicity itself: Endure a lethal COVID surge, but don’t prepare for the next one — and meanwhile, actively stand down current defenses so people go to work and spend money because, “It’s over!” NOPE, another mass wave of death followed by another wave of too-late restrictions followed by another surge of bleak depression and despair.
Some of the smoke clears (again), restrictions are lifted (again) in the name of the capitalist imperative (again), enough people are gulled (again) into letting their guard down. NOPE, a vaccine-resistant subvariant emerges from North Korea (theoretically) and lays waste to Southeast Asia in as much time as it takes to play the World Cup. Lather rinse repeat, but this time the culling is largely relegated to people like me — those with underlying medical risk factors — once it reaches these shores, because of course it will, because the last thing we’ll do is restrict air travel…
Today, they’re calling the next COVID-related challenge a “stress test,” a chance to throw open all the doors and see how well things go with virtually no standard precautions in place. “Whatever happens next, we’re living the reality the CDC’s guidance bargained for,” writes Katherine J. Wu for The Atlantic. “The country’s new COVID rules have asked us to sit tight, wait, and watch. We may soon see the country’s true tolerance for disease and death on full display.”
I’m not certain exactly how or when the decision was made to chart this perilous course. It just sort of… happened, like osmosis. A segment of the population found that ever-present permanent high gear of high dudgeon about masks and perfectly safe shots, capitalism whispered “Yeah what they said” through all the available political and social channels.
Suddenly, here we are, on the edge of a test we are not prepared to take. There is enough proof of this in the public surveys to give one pause. One February Washington Post/ABC News poll has 58 percent of the people saying controlling the spread of COVID is the top priority. A Yahoo News poll conducted precisely that same week has 51 percent saying returning to normal and “learning to live” with COVID is most important… and if we had ham, we could have ham and eggs, if we had eggs.
Polls shmolls, I know, but something is badly out of joint. David Lim of Politico explains what a new COVID surge will find when it comes:
Covid-19 infections are rebounding in several European countries and Biden officials are monitoring infections in the United Kingdom, where cases have jumped more than 36 percent over the past week. Meanwhile, the number of molecular tests shipped each week by major manufacturers in the United States has fallen by more than 50 percent over the last month.
Scott Becker, the CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, said that the U.S. is repeating the same mistakes it made last summer when demand for testing plummeted and test manufacturers scaled back production. “It’s like we’ve learned absolutely nothing as a system during this pandemic,” Becker said. “I have no reason to believe that wouldn’t happen again because they don’t have the demand.”
The concern over the supply of testing comes as the Biden administration warns Congress that if it does not soon provide more than $22 billion in additional funding, the administration will not be able to purchase new supplies of drugs, vaccines, masks and tests. The White House on Tuesday plans to wind down the federal subsidies that guarantee free tests for uninsured people due to lack of funding.
This, even as the administration is preparing to endorse a second booster shot, meaning a fourth overall shot, to help older Americans fight off the virus. There is precedent for this — polio inoculation requires a four-dose regimen of that vaccine. But hmmm… why would we need another layer of protection if we have this thing in hand?
Answer: We don’t. This weird passage we’ve entered is the COVID policy version of throwing the parachute out of the plane and then jumping out after it. That big green thing rushing up at you? Yeah, that’s the ground, which currently holds the remains of nearly a million souls lost in this country alone. Meanwhile the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron is raising increasing levels of hell around the world, with no certainty yet as to the severity of an actual infection wave. At present, it makes up more than 55 percent of new cases in New England, and 34.9 percent nationally. If history is any guide at all, that wave is likely coming.
We weren’t ready before because it was all unprecedented. We aren’t ready now because capitalism’s whisper campaign combined with toxic right-wing politics were potent enough to buckle the knees of even the most stalwart of COVID policy advocates. After all, it’s an election year. In this, the country fails to live up to Uri Freedman’s new benchmark for national strength: The ability to take a punch, get knocked down and then get up again, however many times it takes.
We are not ready for a new COVID wave, deliberately. I shudder in my soul to imagine the impending fury and fear, the wrath of those who thought they heard something hopeful, only to discover it was God laughing at their plans. The feedback loop continues, and there will be hell to pay.
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