Nobody cares what I think about the pandemic. I realize that.
But, I have been groping my way to something like an understanding of what COVID 19 means to us as Americans -- to me, in particular, as someone whose reaction to the pandemic has surprised me. So I am jotting down some musings on the odd chance that these thoughts might be helpful to someone else.
Call me an Andy Slavitt-head. Throughout this ordeal, I have found the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to be the most reliable and interesting oracle of pandemic-related insight. That's the case even though Slavitt is an MBA-wielding former McKinsey consultant with no academic background in healthcare or science whatsoever. I'd argue that his outsider-explainer status is what gives this former official of the Obama Administration (and, now, a former official of the Biden Administration as well) his credibility when it comes to connecting with people who, like me, are likewise not scientifically trained.
I just finished Slavitt's new book, Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response. A compelling read, Preventable takes you through precisely how the man who was president from 2017 to 2021 was precisely the wrong person to serve as chief executive during a pandemic. More importantly, from my standpoint, Preventable helped me understand why the nation of vaccinated people, particularly those whose lefty political leanings generally coincide with my policy preferences, have been so reluctant to leave the pandemic (and their masks) behind them.
Slavitt documents how the successful and warp-speed development of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines was the only part of the pandemic response that the former administration got right. According to Slavitt, this was because of (a) sheer luck, because certain smart people at lower levels of government as well as certain smart people at pharmaceutical companies got themselves in gear as early as January of 2020, (b) the fact that the former administration devoted bazillions of taxpayer dollars to support the vaccine development effort and then allowed the three drug companies to charge whatever prices they liked, and (c) vaccines, unlike any other conceivable public health effort undertaken to fight the pandemic, demands exactly no sacrifice or communitarian spirit on the part of the public. You just roll up your sleeve, twice, and enjoy the comfort of knowing that your chances of getting (or giving) COVID 19 are vanishingly small and your chances of dying of the disease are effectively zero.
Having that laid out for me made the lightbulb go off atop my head. To so many of my friends -- those who favor a dynamic response to climate change, racism and white supremacy, income inequality, and all of the other policy challenges that summon our collective resolve -- simply relying on the vaccine feels like cheating, in the mode of the Short-Fingered Vulgarian (to invoke Spy Magazine's famous nickname from the 1980s). They can't stand the fact that thanks to these drug companies and their taxpayer-funded fast track through the development and approval process, it's no longer necessary for anyone to do anything altruistic, communitarian, or public spirited to put the pandemic behind us.
Okay, but what about the science? Just like a broken clock is right twice a day, the fact that the previous administration got the vaccine thing right, more or less, is no reason to ignore the hard data suggesting that for vaccinated people the pandemic is effectively over. Yes, for a vaccinated person to continue to wear a mask in some situations is courteous and kind, in the sense that it helps allay the anxiety of those who cannot accept the science -- and, along the way, it identifies you as someone who almost certainly voted a certain way in the last election.
But, as the July 5 episode of Slavitt's fabulous podcast (In the Bubble) made clear, there is no reason to be anxious. The two experts who were guests on that program -- epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers and physician Farzad Mostashari -- admitted that even as to unvaccinated children, the risk at this point is comparable to garden variety influenza. And, pre-pandemic, nobody was talking about keeping kids at home, or subjecting themselves to other draconian social distancing regimes, was appropriate during flu season.
This, in turn, got me to thinking about the visceral basis of everyone's partisan and small-p political leanings. The pandemic has made me realize that my votes have skewed toward the left (e.g., I have only failed to vote for the Democratic presidential nominee once since I started voting in 1976) not because I am a communitarian at heart but because I'm an individualist with troublemaking and iconoclastic instincts. I abhor hegemony and oppression, everywhere these things rear their head -- from pre-Civil War slave owners to the CEOs of Big Pharma firms charging usurious prices because the law governing patents, exclusivity, and Medicaid/Medicare allow them to do that.
But, I have come to realize, I find common purpose with my Republican friends when it comes to personal freedom and autonomy. As my spouse said to me at the height of the pandemic: Let's face it, Don, you just hate it when other people are telling you what to do!
Ultimately I hope all of us find ways to transcend our visceral responses to the challenges of our time, and our partisan sympathies, in favor of a "do what works" approach and an understanding that all of us want security and a reason to place hope in the future. Vaccines have always been "what works" for me; I'm the guy who got the Shingrix vaccine (against shingles) on his birthday because that was the first day my health insurance would pay for it. If the science says that the Covid-19 vaccines effectively put the pandemic in the rear view mirror, at least for the vaccinated, I think each of us should get to rely on that truth, leaving to another day the question of how the heck we as a culture will ever again rise to any challenge that requires individual sacrifice and community spirit.
Almost all of us, after all, are the descendants of immigrants (both voluntary and involuntary). For good or ill, in light of that legacy s it really a surprise that we aren't responding to the pandemic the way they did in Hong Kong or Helsinki?