Our governor, Mike Parsons, has announced that, for Missouri, the pandemic is over. It’s been demoted to “endemic.” Which means, in case anyone is wondering, that it’s not gone, it has “settled in” as a constant, like the flu or colds or mosquitoes. He’s more or less following the trend. People are abandoning their masks and it appears to have reached a point where he might as well give it the seal of approval or look like a stick in the mud. Or a Democrat.
I’m still masking. Depending on where I am, this is becoming a minority practice. I’m waiting for the notices of a new spike, but who knows? Maybe the Omicron variant isn’t as nasty in its consequences. Serendipity may make this look like a smart call.
But if it’s true that the virus is entering a less fatal phase, that evolution is doing what it does and making the changes from a killer to a nuisance, what does that say about the last two plus years of our collective reaction? Politicians can only do so much. If people are unwilling to go along with the recommendations—the rules—there’s not much they can do. Usually, only a minority of people in a given community resist the imposition of new requirements. What makes this last couple of years so frustrating is the nature of the requirements in the face of the kind of emergency that has made many of us look like fools.
This is not new. During the savage Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918, people across the United States resisted health regulations to isolate, quarantine, take basic prophylactic measures. Here in St. Louis, Dr. Max Starkloff, the city director of public health, went so far as to have people arrested who refused to stay home. That pandemic was in some ways worse than the present one. When restrictions relaxed, people got sick and died dramatically. But people bristled at being told what to do. Some thought their position in society was protection, others thought prayer would work, still more simply refused to believe they could catch it based on the centuries-old canard that illness was a sign of moral failings. That last may have some credibility, but not the way people meant it. God was not going to protect them, but their willingness to be good citizens made a difference.
Be that as it may, the experience has left me a bit more cynical as to the dependability of my fellow citizens. Yes, wearing a mask has been annoying. Yes, using hand sanitizer ten times more often than usual is irritating. Yes, having to be aware of how close one is to anyone else requires more thought than we’re used to. I’m sure some people chafe at being required to wear shirt and shoes in restaurants or other stores (and personally I’ve always wondered why in designated areas men can go topless but not women). It’s been a while, but I’ve been turned away from certain restaurants for being underdressed, i.e. no shirt and tie—t-shirt and tennis shoes didn’t cut it. But they were rules of engagement and for the most part no one questions them. Mainly because the minority that complains is so small as to be ignorable.
It has been instructive. In science fiction from time to time we’ve had depictions of mass reactions consistent with what we just saw. It is a truth largely to be accepted that when people gather together in sufficient numbers, behavior changes. To paraphrase K from Men In Black, “a person is smart, but people are dumb, panicky, and dangerous.” Add a dose of partisan politics to the mix and we can have the full display of social discontent over what amounts to fashion.
The flip side of this is the amazing resilience and adaptive genius of so many people. While the intransigence and childishness of loud clots of obsessive complainers garnered headlines and news spots, the shear brilliance of others has been a balm to cynicism. Of course, many of those who have stepped up have been worked to the bone, and burn-out is the next epidemic we’ll have to deal with, but those who have just dealt with the situation and continued to serve is the stuff of inspiration. Without them, far more people would be dead, incapacitated, and unable to manage from day to day, and we certainly would not be having the recovery we seem to be experiencing. I have no doubt a lot of the self-styled “true patriots” who have been nothing but embarrassments with their refusal to simply be polite through all this will try to take credit when the smoke clears, claiming that they knew all along and so forth, but they will only be able to stand up and make those claims because of all the people who simply went to work to deal with the situation.
It’s been harder perhaps than it should have been because too many of our civil servants have opted to follow the winds of social reaction instead of taking the lead and allowed themselves to set policy according to the petulant mewling of a perceived constituency whose basic political position is “I don’t want to be bothered.” Had we all simply accepted that we faced a novel problem that required an extraordinary response, we might not have so many dead or, of lesser but not insignificant importance, divided ourselves even more than we have been.
To me, one of the saddest aspects of the lessons to be learned is just how self-involved so many of us are. Whether you agreed with assessed efficacy of the measures suggested or not, the fact is wearing a mask, social distancing, curtailing your usual social meanderings was for the benefit of others. You wear the mask to protect other people from your germs, not you from theirs. How hard is this to understand? The bleating of the imposed-upon marks a low point in basic civility and politeness. You don’t be polite only when it’s your idea. That’s not politeness. That’s not consideration. That’s showing off.
Be that as it may, I feel like I’ve been living in a very large zoo with restless animals set to stampede at any moment. The degree of skill on the part of those who have managed to impose some semblance of common decency among us is an achievement to be marveled at. My hat is off to those who have seen us through.