The Pandemic Mood

Who created it and how it is maintained

Flickr/Nenad Stojkovic
Flickr/Nenad Stojkovic

Outside the Covid testing site in my neighborhood, about 50 people stand on line. It’s always about 50, I’ve noticed. Some fail-safe mechanism in the brain presumably alerts the test seeker that getting on the end of a line longer than that is hopeless. The line moves very slowly. I know this because I stood on it the other day. I waited for two hours and 45 minutes, then spent a few minutes inside the urgent-care center where the testing is done, most of it waiting for others to be registered and tested (six were admitted indoors at a time), then waited outdoors again for about a half hour for the test result. That it was negative came as a kind of spoil of war, the main victory having been achieved by simply getting tested.

It was a cold morning, right around freezing, with the sort of forbidding sky that is a specialty of December in the Northeast. To pass the time, I tried listening in on fellow line standers’ cell phone conversations, because I wanted to know why they were there. Why go through all this? The conversations were held in the common tongue here, a mixture of English and Spanish, sometimes more the former and sometimes entirely the latter, the factors determining whether the words come out in what a person like me recognizes as “English” or as “Spanish” being undoubtedly inexplicable to anyone who, like me, persists in thinking that those are two separate languages. I did learn that some people were there because their employer required that they be tested. Some, like me, were about to travel.

I was hoping to board a flight to Europe, to join my wife in Rome. About this Bronx crowd on the testing line, many of whose relatives would be within the United States, I wondered if they were just taking precautions before seeing family for Christmas.

Testing is the newly recommended precaution. Not to the exclusion of masking or getting the booster vaccine, but much more ubiquitously and stridently adumbrated. The recommendation to maintain a safe distance, which came to be known as social distancing, appears to be obsolete or at least no longer of interest. So is hand sanitizing, although hand sanitizer jars and machines seem commonly to be proffered in shops and offices, a kind of decorative and client-engaging signal that the proprietors are with it, au courant, eager to join the effort to “end the pandemic.”

End the pandemic is recited in all contexts. Schools announcing they will close, and will have students “learn remotely.” President Biden declaring, for Thanksgiving of 2021, that the nation is “back” and skeptics in news and social media responding mockingly or ruefully to highlight how far the nation is from being back, in their view, and, by implication, their fond desire to be authentically back. Professional sports teams revising their schedules or putting certain players, in the name of helping to end the pandemic, on what is now called the “Covid list,” which requires them to sit out a game or a few games until they come “off the Covid list.” Britain’s Office of National Statistics surveying citizens as to when they think life will “return to normal.” Airlines requiring proof of a negative Covid test before boarding as their part of ending the pandemic, and the filling out of official forms indicating what seat you are sitting in, both items linked to QR codes, imprimaturs that convey an implication of some highly coordinated system, the gears of which are turning to make the world “normal,” although, self-evidently, there is no system. Signs reminding passengers that they are required to wear masks while riding the subway, train, or bus (not actually required in the conventional sense, since nobody checks). Health department officials exhorting the public to protect our loved ones by not visiting if we have symptoms, or if we don’t have symptoms but think we have been exposed, or have not been vaccinated, and to “self-quarantine,” and above all to get tested.

The mood, everywhere now, is that we live not in the world but in the pandemic, which is different. The unspoken corollary being that we will one day return to the world. The language always involves retrogression—we will go back to normal. This is an odd and, to me, off-putting way of thinking about the future, and I suspect the formulation is not accidental. The sentimentalization of the past that animated the Make America Great Again canard has its counterpart in the Return to Normal. The constant repetition of the pandemic semantic is a way to burnish a wildly distorted memory of the past. The retrogression is itself part of a program of not engaging with life right now, just following the numbers—the case counts, the vaccination rates, the numbers of deaths—and just complying with the recommendations. Following the science, a constant claim, notwithstanding that science proceeds deliberately and tentatively, and generates not definitive truth but better provisional approaches to truth—so that what is being followed in the “follow the science” assertion is more often a shoot-from-the-hip guess about the progress of SARS-CoV-2 than actual science.

This encouragement to return to a fantasized past is an exhortation to detach from the world, from life. But why? Merely to see no evil? To pretend that what is happening has not happened many times before (eruption of nature, microscopic pathogen, mass death); to pretend that advanced technology, massive data sets, and hyper-technical systems can overcome nature’s surprises; to blame natural phenomena that we find untoward on human profligacy, an attachment to plastic, capitalism, or “polarization”—to tell ourselves, that is, that this all-too-normal mortal event is out of the ordinary, out of the world. Is it meant to maintain a rosy view of the world we live in, as clement, or at least controllable? Is that the aim, in the end—to keep the faith in progress?

The pandemic sensibility—in the sense of needing a rationale for disengaging from the inchoate pointlessness of the world and the frustrating effort of imputing to it some end or object—was inevitable. Not inevitable in the way that I stated on this site in March 2020, soon after Covid cases had begun to appear in outbreak fashion, increasing exponentially by the day in New York: at that point I attributed the fascination with the pandemic (as it was already being called) to the so-called preparedness industry that had been developing its capacities to frighten people for a couple of decades. No, here I mean that detachment from a world that had become too fearsome had become irresistible. Inevitable, then, in the sense that too many people, whether they realized it or not, were eager to be done with the give-and-take of real politics (how else to explain the election of a swindler and acknowledged sex abuser to the White House?), to shut the door and stay home, to work remotely, to read the news of the world only as a series of flashes from the inferno, to stop visiting the in-laws, to avoid touching one another or even touching anything someone else might have touched, to move sex online—not out of hate or spite but because it had all become so bewildering now. To take a breather.

Paradoxically, it’s in adopting the pandemic mood that one feels extra engaged. It authorizes the fantasy that time will go backward and stop at a moment when you knew, or thought you knew, how to live. To be in the pandemic mood, to desire ardently to help End the Pandemic, is to be unusually aware of the immense toll of death and the accompanying suffering and heartache. To be so aware allows one to excuse oneself for harboring the retrogression fantasy. And it grants to each self-serving act—acts as simple as wearing a mask on the bus—an illusory effect: it is making the world a better place. This is the apotheosis of human disconnection. A faculty member at the Boston University school of public health says, “Getting through a pandemic requires coming together and taking coordinated action.” The illusion is that individual prudence constitutes coordinated action as long as everyone does it. No need for collective discourse, weighing of the personal and the political, trust or mistrust in luck, doubt. No need for real life.

The coordinated action the professor called for, it is repeated over and over, is necessary for public health. To contend that the health of the public is at stake is at once a perfectly reasonable claim and cant. Reasonable, as we are witnessing a mass catastrophe of disabling illness and death. But begging a central question about who, exactly, the public is. The people who punch store employees because the latter asked them to wear a mask while shopping, the people who refuse to undergo vaccination against Covid, the people who insist that expectations that they should wear a mask or get a vaccination are violations of their freedom—these people are also part of the public, if there is one. And yet many of the purveyors of the public health rationale, quite a few of whom I know personally because I teach public health, because I live in New York City, or simply because I associate with “progressives,” insist that the refuseniks not be regarded as part of the public, of our public. Accuse them of harming “the rest of us.” Want them to be denied hospital care if they get sick. Regard them as misled, gullible, or stupid. Or, if they are Black, assume that they are “suspicious” of the medical establishment because of the Tuskegee Study, as if no Black American could, for reasons that are personal and fully thought out, feel doubtful about the institutions that supposedly serve him or her but often fail to.

Why some Americans might not feel themselves to be part of a public is not, evidently, of interest to those who promote compliance with anti-Covid policies. The “fraying” of public health’s safety net is discussed. The “erosion” of the social contract is discussed. The practical question of how to reach the refuseniks with valid information—“the science”—and how to persuade them to get with the program is discussed. In 1905, when the Supreme Court ruled, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, that it is constitutional for a state to require vaccination in an emergency, Justice John Marshall Harlan based his majority opinion in part on the existence of a “social compact.” A social compact, or contract, is by definition an implied contract. And yet I have not heard anyone in the medical and public health establishment point out that the social contract that is the basis for public health—especially now, when so much seems to depend on vaccination—is determined solely by people with money or power or (usually) both. The social contract has never been signed by the people whom the makers of policy, and the owners of businesses that benefit from such policies (and, apparently, Supreme Court justices) assume are governed by that contract. I have heard my colleagues and friends point out that the social contract is eroding but not that the supposition that a social contract exists at all was from the start a trap for the poor, the powerless, and the disaffected.

What would the medical and public health establishment find, were it to question whether the social contract it invokes as a rationale for its requirements is anything more than an endorsement of a status quo? I think it would conclude that this is another instance of the powerful determining which ills in society are worthy of amelioration through coordinated action—meaning policy. And that it rarely, ever, asks all segments of society what they most want changed. That it is in no way a sign of any “erosion” when a poor Black or Hispanic family living in public housing hesitates to accept vaccination or testing from the government, after the same government has repeatedly promised but failed to provide: adequate heat, pest control, mold abatement, decent-paying jobs, safe streets, or good schools. Nor is it a sign of collapse of “public health” that there are doubts on the part of people whose family members have started on the pharmaceutical industry’s painkillers and then, being unable to get more painkillers because of government controls, turned to heroin because the same government had neglected to provide alternatives for people who had become addicted to opiates, and then overdosed on fentanyl and died—not a surprise that such people would hesitate to take up vaccines produced by the collaboration of that government with that pharmaceutical industry.

Has the public ever been more than a figment of the imagination of those privileged enough to theorize about society? In any case, now that we can recognize that nothing is private, at least if you use the Internet, and realize that public works depend on the use of the no-longer-private information owned by private companies, the existence of a public can’t be taken for granted. Public oughtn’t to be used glibly. If public health is the rationale for efforts that everyone will putatively get on board with, someone will have to ask which public is in question.

That some response to Covid was in order seems evident enough. A global outbreak of deadly disease demands something, but it does not demand everything.

This is not a war, I said in 2020 to anyone who would listen. Naïvely, I now think. Because the feeling is and has been one of living under a certain kind of occupation. Not a punitive occupation to be sure, of which here are plenty of examples in the world. But one that introduces and enforces unexpected prohibitions.

We are in Bucharest with Albert Corde, Saul Bellow’s character in The Dean’s December, “the queues forming at daybreak, the aged women with oil-cloth shopping bags waiting throughout the day,” hoping to buy food that might or might not be available; facing the sudden demands to show papers of some kind to an official. In the pandemic form of occupation, papers are those that show Covid test results. Lines are for vaccination, or for water, which is needed because the “supply chains” have been broken. Water fountains are turned off. Offices and waiting rooms are closed because they must be “sanitized.” Boarding an airplane flight, already fraught with by-now-customary humiliations like walking in stocking feet through a machine that allows the uniformed Transportation Security people to see through your clothing, now involves, depending on destination, proof of immunization with approved vaccines and proof of a negative Covid test.

The mail might be delayed. You might not be allowed to see your doctor for a chronic condition because it is considered too dangerous for you to be in a medical facility, or too dangerous for the doctor to be exposed to you. You might find that you cannot enter a restaurant because you have forgotten your vaccination card. These restrictions change over time.

The pandemic, by which I mean the acceptance of restrictions and reductions, the hollow rationalization that one is going along because it is “best for everyone”—this mood is a dark charm. The sense of living in an occupied zone, readily rationalized right now because, after all, we must End the Pandemic, will become normal, customary, unremarkable. This inevitable habituation is a lesson easily drawn from the persistence of intrusive and arbitrary standards imposed during our earlier occupation, the so-called War on Terror: the shoe-doffing rule at airports; the chemical test strips applied to your luggage; the three-ounce restriction for liquids carried onto airplanes; the presence of people armed with machine guns and bulletproof vests in our railway stations; police officers or national guardsmen (hard to tell apart, now that the police have “tactical” squads, whatever that means, who also wear camouflage); prisoners, still, at Guantánamo.

Suitable systems have been implemented to enforce the pandemic mood, and the trouble any normal person has in coping with the world makes the systems seem reassuring, or at least like guideposts to a world that isn’t any more confusing than it ever was—we still have to deal primarily with each other—but which we have learned to regard as impossible to navigate with the signs. Vasily Grossman writes, in Life is Fate, that life is freedom, meaning that only life, and even the barest of life, offers some choices, whereas death offers none, and we might as well simply live. But the pandemic mood convinces us that we are incapable of living on our own, without the signs.

Peter Hotez, a renowned infectious disease physician at Baylor College of Medicine who is often interviewed by journalists, says that “vaccinating the world” is the key to ending the pandemic. He warns, too, that even that might not be enough. “There are viruses that come and go and don’t return for a period of years as well.”

The signs, that is, are posted. The danger will not recede. Compliance is essential, but more important is to maintain the mood, not to return to life, to keep believing that Covid is a sign of the fraying of public health and the eroding of the social contract and that, therefore, it is essential to comply, to follow the rules; to “follow the science” by not asking what agendas or motives lie behind the insistence by scientists that only masks, only social distancing, only vaccines, only testing, or only the next incantation, whatever it is, will be the solution; to persist in feeling virtuous in criticizing those who do not comply. Because the stance, the position, the contribution to the mood—these are what matter. Not life.

I will wait on more lines. So will you. There will be more inoculation and medication, more PCR tests. More plans to reach the vaccine hesitant. More vilification of the refuseniks. More news flashes from the inferno. Because the mood must be maintained, and the mood is made by the entitled, by the epidemiologists and the economists, by the elected and appointed, by the experts. They do what they must. We comply. But I will try to remember that I am among the lucky. So are you. Five million have died and we are not among them. Did compliance with the rules, distancing and getting vaccinated and so on, make that possible? Maybe. But assuredly, it was mostly a matter of fortune or fate, a roll of the dice—whatever you call that part of life that is essential and not predictable. Life and more life.

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Philip Alcabes trained as an infectious-disease epidemiologist and has been writing about health and illness for the Scholar since 2004. He is a professor of public health at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He is the author of Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu, a history of epidemics as social phenomena.


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