We're All Trying to Find the Guy Policing Our Behavior
Who or what is preventing us from going "back to normal" exactly?
I dropped my kid off at school this morning, as I do most mornings. We took the city bus, which, as always, crawled in traffic and grew steadily more crowded as it approached the Kings County Hospital campus. We live close enough to the start of the route to get a seat most of the time (except on those days when the traffic-induced bunching, and subsequent rerouting, grow so out of control that the bus is standing-room-only by the time it pulls out of its first stop). Usually we bike, but my building’s elevator was down (the super said the city is reacting to the recent fire in the Bronx with a massive inspection blitz), leaving my pedal-assist electric cargo bike basically stranded in our fourth-floor apartment.
With the elevator now back in service, we biked home from afterschool and watched Bluey while eating spaghetti for dinner. After dinner, at his insistence (and inspired by Bluey, a show that gives children a dangerously unrealistic impression of how much time and energy their parents have to create magical memories playing imaginative games), we played a sort of tag variation involving tickling. At one point, upset with his mother for violating (flagrantly, it must be said) the rules he’d invented, my kid began tearing up. I reached out my arms to comfort him, and, choking back sobs, he climbed into my lap… and tickled me.
After demanding to watch videos of himself as a baby, it was time for story and bed. I asked him about the award he’d won in his class for showing Scholarship, which I’d seen in the weekly Pre-K newsletter. “Oh, Ari told me I won an award, but I don’t believe him.” Upon additional questioning, it turned out that his two usual Pre-K teachers, who give out the awards each Friday, hadn’t been in school today, or yesterday for that matter. “I think Miss S. isn’t feeling well,” he said, “and I think Miss M. is taking care of her.”
I will take him to gymnastics class tomorrow morning, and then to a school friend’s birthday party (weather permitting) in the afternoon. We’re also making plans with another family to go ice skating on Sunday, which my kid has never done, because (as he explained to us last winter) he was waiting until he turned five, which he did this month. (He also said he was waiting until he turned five to get a haircut, but he quickly reneged on that once the day came.) My mother came to visit for her grandson’s birthday, and we went with her and a few other friends to one of his favorite local restaurants for a birthday brunch.
That’s a snapshot of my life in January 2022. Elsewhere, Disney World was officially full on New Year’s Eve. For $107 I could book a flight to Bermuda this weekend. The Knicks lost at home yesterday; a fan was spotted at the game watching The Office on mute. Vietnamese restaurant Que Viet, a Minneapolis mainstay famous for the giant egg rolls on a stick it sells each year at the Minnesota State Fair, is opening a St. Paul location. The number one movie in the country is Scream.
It all seems very normal. It seems a bit uncannily normal, really, happening against a backdrop of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of new Covid-19 infections across the nation, and months of Americans dying by the thousands. And yet! To hear some people, this is a country where panicky scolds refuse to allow children to go back to school, or, in some vague sense, let people have their normal lives back.
Of course, the normalcy is unequally distributed. “Normal” is still an impossible state of affairs for an untold number of people with immunodeficiency or hospital jobs or dead parents or lost homes. Our schools here are open (except when classes go remote, as they regularly do, because, again, so many people are catching Covid-19), but parents everywhere are understandably at the ends of their ropes in the current surge. We’re deeply relieved our kid just became vaccine-eligible; others might still wait a year or more.
But, with a couple exceptions, those sorts of people, with legitimate complaints about what the unchecked spread of the virus has done to their lives, aren’t really the ones you actually see complaining so goddamn much, because most of those sorts of people don’t have the sorts of platforms that would lead me to come across their complaints. It is very much mainly people in households very much like mine (or ones that have it even easier!) that are the primary sources of the most well-publicized opining on how This Has Gone On Long Enough and It’s Time For the Democrats to Say Enough Is Enough and Make It Stop.
If I wanted to be charitable I’d say I sort of understand it. We are obviously in a privileged position, but life is certainly not normal for us by our pre-pandemic standards (though it is all perfectly normal to my son, who cannot remember a pre-pandemic world). My wife is still at home on endless video calls each day. We’ve postponed the kid’s proper birthday party until he has full immunity from his second dose of the vaccine. We are traveling and going out less than we used to (though I also largely stopped “going out” a few years prior to the pandemic, for reasons you can probably deduce with context clues). I have lost precious time with my grandmother and other family members. But, honestly, I don’t want to be charitable! The people in the press and on social media complaining the loudest about Covid-19 restrictions are, at this point, people for whom Covid-19 is just a thing they are sick of hearing and thinking about.
What most of the restrictions on our behavior (and the behavior of most other Americans) have in common is that they are not being imposed on us by power-grabbing authority figures. They are largely decisions we made, or decisions made for us by other private actors, in response to the inescapable fact that a dangerous and highly transmissible virus is spreading rapidly throughout the city, and the state, and the country, and the world.
This is why I find the tenor of discussion around Covid-19 restrictions genuinely bewildering. There basically aren’t any. The United States is powering through the Omicron wave with its usual enforced individualism. The hard restrictions on our activities are, for the most part, not mandated or enforced by the state, acting at the behest of liberals who refuse to go back to normal because they are addicted to panic and quarantine; the limits are imposed by the virus that isn’t going away. My kid’s school class went remote for a while because people had Covid-19. He’s back in school now even though his principal has Covid-19. As usual in the United States, the people who won the political argument are now complaining the loudest that they’re dissatisfied with the results, and, apparently, it’s all the fault of the losers.
This week’s episode of The Politics of Everything is, basically, about how we got to this state. Omicron was always going to hit this country hard, but, as we discuss with journalist Melody Schreiber and epidemiologist Justin Feldman, the Biden administration entered office promising to let science guide its public health policy, and then put a bunch of political hacks in charge of it. However you feel about it, we’re living with the result.
I enjoy reading the thing I've been yelling. It's better in print.