“I’m done with COVID. I’m done,” Bari Weiss thundered on a recent edition of Real Time with Bill Maher.
The audience applauded wildly as the opinion writer and Substack star complained that she had diligently followed public-health measures early on in the pandemic, and it all seems to have been in vain.
Ms. Weiss said she was sick and tired of all the rules and restrictions and wanted to get “back to normal.”
“It’s a pandemic of bureaucracy. It’s not real any more,” Ms. Weiss concluded.
“I’m done with COVID” has become a rallying cry of sorts.
It’s a catchy slogan.
After all, who isn’t “done” with COVID-19?
After almost two years of pandemic restrictions – curfews, lockdowns, vaccine passports, home-schooling, business closings, multiple vaccines and a seemingly endless series of disruptions to daily life (which vary depending on where you live) – who isn’t sick and tired of it all?
Mind you, in much of the U.S., where the “I’m done with COVID” cries are loudest, one would be hard-pressed to find any restrictions.
Mask-wearing and vaccination are not mandated, except in rare circumstances; in states such as Florida, you can actually be sanctioned for promoting public-health measures. People are travelling freely. Most kids are in school. Restaurants and bars are open, and 70,000 people can attend a football game.
In a country where almost 900,000 have died of COVID-19, and another 2,000 or so are still dying daily, life is “back to normal.”
The biggest complaint of the “I’m done with COVID” set seems to be that they are tired of hearing about COVID-19. Despite the fact that, practically speaking, in the U.S. at least the pandemic is done. Except for the burials.
Of course, we all want COVID-19 to be done, and the sooner the better. Just like we want a trifecta of lower taxes, less government intrusion in our lives and more public services.
In the classic TV series West Wing, there is a great scene where fictional Democratic U.S. president Josiah Bartlet is debating his Republican opponent Robert Ritchie. The conservative politician complains that taxes are too high and vows to cut them because the “American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.”
This is supposed to be the kill shot but, after a long pause, president Bartlet responds: “Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. But here’s my question: What are the next 10 words?”
That is exactly what needs to be asked of those uttering the slogan “I’m done with COVID”: What are your next four words?
In other words, beyond willful blindness and magical thinking, what exactly do you propose we do about the pandemic?
How many more deaths are you willing to accept in the name of “freedom”? How much collateral damage are you willing to accept in the health system, from widespread delays in treatment to a mass resignation of health workers?
As the saying goes, the pandemic isn’t yet done with us. That’s a fact, not “fear porn.” Simply closing our eyes, and our minds, to reality won’t make things better.
Uttering “I’m done with COVID” as a mantra won’t stop the virus from spreading and mutating. It won’t end the threat of infection, especially to frail elders and other medically fragile citizens. It won’t free up surgical suites and hospital beds for hip replacements and treatment of cancer patients. It won’t get sick workers suddenly back on the job, diligently teaching children or stacking store shelves.
“I’m done with COVID” is the equivalent of offering “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting. It’s a bromide, not a remedy.
Public-health measures such as vaccination, masking and physical distancing are working. They’re not 100-per-cent effective – and no one pretended they would be – but to suggest that this somehow makes all public-health measures useless and pointless is cynical and nihilistic.
Restrictions are easing, as they should. But the shift to living with COVID-19, from pandemic to endemic, needs to be done in an orderly fashion, conscious of the fact that some people in society (such as frail elders and the immunocompromised) are at far greater risk, and pandemic harm is not equally distributed.
Right now, most of the limits on our activities are being imposed by the virus itself. Infections are overwhelming hospitals and devastating the work force in many sectors.
“I’m done with COVID” is an easy applause line.
But incantation is not a substitute for vaccination. Nor is self-righteous indignation a public-policy solution.