So we’ve done Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Gamma. Now we’re on to Omicron.
A somebody at the World Health Organization remarked, without any sense of hilarity, that if we exhaust the Greek alphabet, we can name Covid variants after the constellations.
People, when do we get a grip?
With Orion? When do we halt the freak-outs at every panic-porn headline? Scorpius? When do we drop compliance with each senseless edict from scolds in high office. Ursa Major?
We’ve entered another winter spike in a seasonal contagion. By all means, help those needing heightened protection. But with more winters, we’ll likely confront more spikes, more blips. At last count, there are 88 constellations: the fear-mongers have a long road yet to run.
As for the rest of us, though, let’s shed the chronic anxiety infecting Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who has spoken of her recurring sense of “impending doom.” Let’s look for the day when Philadelphia media will drop their obsession with “cases” and start tracking, say, daily carjackings.
Let’s make a resolution for the New Year to get back to normal, and quickly.
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In 2020, the annus horribilis that initiated rolling waves of fright, a virus that can be terribly hard on the old collided with a society that had become … old. (Also obese, adding further risk of Covid illness, but let’s not digress.) The leading edge of the baby-boom generation had entered their geriatric years, and their parents, if still living, were nearing the last days of their lives. Deaths rose sharply. Age mattered.
Here’s a statistical perspective. You can do a calculation that discounts age, a calculation that uses a standard age structure and a fixed population size across time. The CDC has done this, publishing its final analysis only this month. The all-cause, age-adjusted mortality rate for 2020 comes to 835 deaths per 100,000 population, a seventeen-percent jump over the like number for 2019. Covid obviously accounted for a big part of that. Yet to see an even higher figure in the CDC analysis — 843 deaths per 100,000 — you need look back only to 2003. So even within the lives of the oldest of today’s high-school kids, there was a year when the death rate, as adjusted here, was higher.
The year 2020, then, was hardly the end of times. Another perspective, and one that highlights the lingering hysteria of today, is offered by the other pandemics within living memory. Those would be the Asian flu of 1957-1958 and the Hong Kong flu of 1968-1969. During the Asian flu pandemic, this country carried on much as it had always done. Rhythm, not doleful blues, put Huey “Piano” Smith on the charts with “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.” Likewise, the Hong Kong flu led to nothing like the forced quasi-paralysis of a nation. The virus may well have wafted across the ginormous drugfest that was Woodstock, but it was other substances passed among the flower children that caused their parents to worry. That anyone might shutter schools and businesses across the land would have been unthinkable, to say nothing of ordering the healthy to immure themselves at home.
Yet what hasn’t been thinkable since early 2020? The other day, I saw a guy out on the Main Line drive by while still in full mouth-and-nose-swaddled masquerade. He was alone. The car windows were up. Maybe he’s waiting for the Gemini variant to come and go.
It’s easy enough to deplore the scare-and-hector tactics of a Biden, a Fauci, and a host of hard-lockdown governors. Tougher is dealing with the anxiety of the family member, the friend, the fellow parent of young children. Resolve is one thing, the still unsettled etiquette another. Nevertheless, in the interest of the year ahead, here are suggested responses to a few scenarios.
You meet a close cousin still crawling out from a long and self-imposed quarantine. You reach out to shake hands. He hesitates. You give a conciliatory laugh, point to the sanitizer he carries in his shirt pocket, and turn your palm up for a spray.
You go to a dinner party and find yourself amid the doubly boostered as they exchange witticisms about finding a place in cattle corrals for those miscreants who have declined the jab. You smile wanly and remark on the row between agencies within the British government over who is more prone to infection, the unvaxxed or the vaxxed. The chatting stops. Expressions harden. You artfully segue to odds-making on the Super Bowl.
You arrive at the elementary school after work and find your child still discomforted by the mask that has become a snot rag, still unable to convey a smile or a frown, still mumbling as if gagged, because your child has, indeed, been gagged for most of the day. You remove the damned thing. Then, dangling it between thumb and forefinger as you might a dead and decaying rodent, you parade it to the nearest waste can. Covidien moms and dads give you a look. You stare them down.
We can, however, find our separate ways back to normal in 2022, even old normal. It’s long past time.
Richard Koenig is the author of the Kindle Single No Place To Go, an account of efforts to provide toilets in Ghana during a cholera outbreak.
CDC statistics cited in this article are taken from Mortality in the United States, 2020 (NCHS Data Brief, No. 427, December 2021) and Mortality Trends in the United States (Age-adjusted Death Rates and Life Expectancy at Birth (Both Sexes, All Races): United States, 1900 to 2018.