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When We Rose to Fight COVID, We Were Deliberately Turned Against Each Other

There was a time when we came together to fight COVID, but that energy threatened the status quo more than the virus.

People head towards the Brooklyn Bridge while participating in the second annual "Covid March to Remember" on August 6, 2022, in New York City.

Part of the Series

I have been writing about the COVID-19 pandemic with dreary regularity for some 30 months now. In that time, more than 1 million people in the United States have died, almost 94 million have been infected, with some 90,000 new infections on average per day for the last two weeks.

These terribly high numbers are, in fact, low because our testing and tracing “regimen” hasn’t been worth a single damn from the day Donald Trump opened his orange gob and began bleating about the “China virus.” Because the vaccination program similarly hit a reef made of MAGA hats, the dubious idea of collective immunity has also fallen to dust.

That which could go wrong, did go wrong, and remains wrong to the moment before us. This is not, therefore, some sort of “capstone” COVID article, because COVID is not over. In fact, a number of conditions are coalescing that, if allowed to stagger and reel along the way they have to date, will confront us with a winter marred by too much virus, too few vaccines, not nearly enough funding and almost zero remaining public will to effectively confront the threat.

The New York Times reports:

At the very moment a better coronavirus vaccine is expected to finally become available, America’s vaccination program is feeling the effects of a long period of retreat. Local programs to bring shots to the places where Americans gather and the institutions they trust have folded, a consequence in some cases of congressional resistance to more pandemic response spending.

The same local health department workers responsible for Covid and flu shots this fall have also, without new staffing, been juggling a monkeypox outbreak and childhood immunization deficits that have left some places susceptible to polio. And some state health officials, citing weak demand for vaccines and increased survival rates of late, said in interviews that they had stopped aggressively pushing coronavirus shots.

Lacking a congressional extension of funding, free home testing provided by the federal government will end on September 2, if not before. States like Indiana, which have gone hard right since the advent of Trump, are currently criminalizing the distribution of food, medicines, and other goods to the poor and unhoused, including masks, testing, and other COVID defenses.

Those ensconced in the ivory tower of Big Tech are not protected from the ravages of the ongoing pandemic. At mighty Google, workers are becoming increasingly distressed by the company’s return-to-work demands as new workplace infections pile up around them. “The company began requiring most employees to return to physical offices at least three days a week in April,” reports CNBC. “Since then, staffers have pushed back on the mandate after they worked efficiently for so long at home while the company enjoyed some of its fastest revenue growth in 15 years. Google has offered full-time employees the option to request permanent remote work, but it’s unclear how many workers have been approved.”

In a way, it would be a strange sort of comfort to look at the last 30 months as a rolling example of rank incompetence. A president terrified of losing an election, a Congress distracted by armed insurrectionists seeking the violent overthrow of the previous election (the new definition of “partisanship”), and an alphabet soup of health-related agencies running their public talking points through a blender, all combined to turn the last two-and-a-half years into a bog of death, fear and uncertainty.

All that played its part, to be sure, but the explanation of why this has all unfolded the way it has runs deeper. I remember vividly the early weeks and months of the pandemic — when health care professionals wore garbage bags and used Lysol-soaked masks because protective gear was unavailable, when the register kid at the grocery store looked at you from behind plexiglass with the deeply frightened eyes of one being called “hero” when he had to be there to make rent — and the way the world came together to support them as best we could with song and supplies and our own devoted practices of self-protection.

That, as it turns out, was more of a menace to the status quo than any pandemic could be. People started wondering about all manner of things that had been virtually off-limits for generations: The disaster zone of our health care industry, workers’ rights and the galling supremacy of capitalism. Even more destabilizing was the idea that all those people could get together and demand the kind of changes we as a society have needed since before the country was born.

Of course, this simply would not do, and so the well-heeled voices of division roared to life. Suddenly, things like masks and vaccines — anything that helped — became litmus tests for an increasingly violent segment of the country. Trump and his lickspittles were happy enough to promote this — hell, before he was kicked off Twitter, Trump himself was the #1 purveyor of fact-free COVID bombast. It all dragged on and on, the shouters got louder and the rest became exhausted, until the potential for that collective effort bled away like helium from a birthday balloon.

“What is unfolding before our eyes is a kind of classical tragedy,” scholar and public intellectual Noam Chomsky recently told Truthout, “the grim conclusion foreordained, the march toward it seemingly inexorable. The origins are deep in the history of a society that has been free and bountiful for the privileged, awful for those who were in the way or cast aside.”

The collective national trauma caused by COVID-19 remains with us, a heavy presence even in the absence of dreary headlines and skyrocketing body counts. We have been through something brutal, all of us, and in that passage, we seem to have lost an opportunity. That which makes us weak as a country was viciously exposed by the virus, but rather than rise to the moment, we were scrambled like eggs by people who are very good at co-opting the conversation to thwart even the idea of progress or collective action.

All of us on our lonely little islands, armed to the teeth and suspicious of everything, is exactly how they want us… but that energy was there for a time. It was warm, bright and deeply inspirational; you could almost reach out your window and scoop up a handful. It’s still there, and so am I, and so are you. To quote Dahr Jamail, “How, then, shall we live?

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