The Pandemic Exposed Our Empathy Deficit

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, told “PBS NewsHour” that “certainly” America is now “out of the pandemic phase” of Covid-19 as our rates of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths continue to ebb. But, he added, “We’re not going to eradicate this virus.” Our best hope is to “keep that level very low, and intermittently vaccinate people,” possibly as often as every year.

Put another way, the endemic has arrived.

As Fauci later told The Washington Post, “We’re really in a transitional phase, from a deceleration of the numbers into hopefully a more controlled phase and endemicity.”

The cost to get here has been almost incalculable. There have been 81 million recorded Covid cases in America and nearly a million deaths. The United States is now averaging about 360 deaths a day from Covid, which would be an alarming number in almost any other context, but it looks like progress when measured against the pandemic’s peak, when thousands of people were dying each day.

Still, this moment doesn’t feel as celebratory as it did last summer. In a triumphant speech on July 4, Biden declared that “245 years ago, we declared our independence from a distant king. Today, we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.” He was, however, quick to say that the battle against Covid was far from over: “We’ve got a lot more work to do.”

We would, in fact, have another deadly wave of the virus.

We are now weary of any talk of independence from the virus or victory over it. People celebrate small things, like those who clapped on airplanes last week when they were told that masks were no longer required.

We have been well taught by this virus, humbled by it, so that we now understand that it has no intention of doing what Donald Trump once promised it would: “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

What has fluttered away instead are our patience and our precautions.

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll of American adults released last month found, “Fewer than half are always or often avoiding nonessential travel, staying away from large groups, and wearing a face mask outside of their homes” for the first time since at least February 2021. “And just a third are avoiding others as much as possible.”

People have absorbed their personal risk calculations and simply decided that they will return more to a so-called normal life, even as the virus continues to claim lives.

We seem, as a society, to have become resigned to the virus, accepting a certain level of sickness and death as the new normal.

But what prevents the remnants of the virus from settling on the topography of America’s existing inequalities? What becomes of all the trauma? How is it treated?

How can we even begin to connect the dots between rises in violent crime and rises in depression among young people, financial stress and the staggered levels of disruption and death?

Take, for instance, a report released last week by the Pew Research Center, which found that economic hardships in the first nine months of the pandemic fell hardest on lower- and middle-income families. “From 2019 to 2020, the median income of lower-income households decreased by 3.0 percent and the median income of middle-income households fell by 2.1 percent,” the researchers wrote. “In contrast, the median income of upper-income households in 2020 was about the same as it was in 2019.”

While the well-off shopped online and dreamed of delayed vacations, whole swaths of America were falling into an even more desperate state. The pandemic wasn’t an inconvenience but instead a life-altering experience, a complete reordering of things, a gateway to more suffering, not just from illness but also from society’s ills.

Hunger, trauma, violence. The pandemic exacerbated all three, and more. But we don’t center therapeutic remedies in our discussions of what’s next. We center crackdowns and handouts. We center moving on over getting back up. We center a “return to normal” over the plights of those for whom normal was never enough.

An America now plagued by endemic disease faces a real challenge: Will we behave differently and do better, will we care for people rather than cuff them, or will we resort to the response we too often have — of not allowing ourselves to truly register need so that we don’t have to truly contend with it?

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