I think of myself as an optimist, but I am not sanguine about where we are with this virus. Not long ago, I spent two weeks on the Florida Panhandle. My relief at getting away from home and my pleasure at overlooking the glittering Gulf of Mexico were dampened by the general absence of masks in elevators, grocery stores, and restaurants (which we passed through quickly to get to outdoor seating). For now, the rates of infection there suggest that this carelessness about mask wearing, together with lower-than-average rates of vaccination, does not have serious consequences. Chalk it up to Gulf breezes and outdoor living. But for how long? After India’s first wave subsided last fall, predictions that the virus would soon be under control, and the optimistic laxness that followed, led to the purgatorial state in which the country now finds itself. In her Letter from Naples in this issue, Giusi De Luca mentions the cycle of infections in Italy. As she was writing the letter, parts of the country were still in a red zone, but at the moment it has been changed to yellow. And yet, she wrote to me the other day to report that cases are again rising.
Vaccinations have led to the end-of-pandemic exuberance in this country, at least in places where people have actively, at times desperately, sought the shots. But President Biden’s goal of having 70 percent of those eligible vaccinated by the Fourth of July seems unrealistic, given the plunging vaccination rates and the determination in places like northwest Florida to act as if the virus does not exist. And even if we do reach a level of vaccination that justifies our eagerness to return to normal life, we should worry that we have no ability to keep the unvaccinated world at bay until two, three, how many years from now, when a safe level of vaccination becomes global. And during that time, new variants, such as the one that helped set India afire, have the chance to develop and spread.
Both De Luca and our cover story writer, Lucy Jones, make the sensible, even if only metaphorical, connection between the onset of this terrible pandemic and humankind’s general carelessness toward nature. In a specific way, the despoliation of habitat drives wild animals into our midst, and in a general way, our heedlessness about the environment and indifference to other species would seem to justify a response from nature. And as Jones reminds us, viruses are nature, too.
My fear that this happy period of decreasing infections in the United States is merely an interlude reminds me that we might also be in the midst of a political interlude. Those of us who wish to see government do the things that only government can do are ourselves feeling exuberant these days. But the lies undermining our democracy are also a virus, and where is the vaccine for that?
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