The pandemic is over. We made it through!
Together again after too long apart, we must never forget the now-past pandemic’s lessons. We have to remember how we made it out.
Luckily, our leaders — on both sides of the aisle — are ahead of the curve on this reflection. “Health and economic impacts were tragic. Hardship and heartbreak were everywhere,” White House economic advisor Lawrence Kudlow noted at the Republican National Convention. “But presidential leadership came swiftly and effectively with an extraordinary rescue for health and safety to successfully fight the COVID virus.” You told ‘em, Larry.
But that rescue didn’t come immediately. New York City was America’s first epicenter. Governor Andrew Cuomo remembers what those first few weeks felt like. “This is the mountain that New Yorkers climbed,” Cuomo remarked in his June 29 press conference, pointing at a dramatically revealed 5-foot tall foam sculpture representing the COVID-19 New York state case curve. “We don’t want to climb this mountain again,” he warned the cameras. The foam monument to his state’s victory over COVID-19 is even getting a companion with the October release of Cuomo’s new book, “American Crisis: Lessons in the Leadership from the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
And now, months past the peak, having learned the lessons of spring, we can return to normal. Indeed, normal is already everywhere you look. Restaurants across America have reopened for indoor dining. Primary and secondary schools in many regions have begun in-person instruction. And now colleges, too, are joining in the fun of a post-pandemic world. I can hear the campus coming back to life tonight outside my dorm window. It sounds like heaven.
Just how did we do it, you ask? Well! First, we … then we … and then, after that we … uh … huh.
Did we do it?
Wait a second. I’m not in my dorm. I’m in my childhood bedroom! I knew my suitemates looked a little old: they’re my parents. And that ambulance definitely wasn’t on its way to rescue someone who blacked out at Woads.
Newsflash: we didn’t do it. The pandemic is not over. It’s not even close to being over.
It didn’t have to be this way. In many countries, actually, it isn’t this way. The United States is an outlier. We are an outlier among developed countries, we are an outlier among pretty much all countries — far ahead in total cases and only behind totally comparable countries like Kuwait, Qatar, San Marino and Brazil in terms of cases per capita.
One-hundred and eighty thousand dead in under six months. That’s more people than every undergraduate class at Yale since the News first printed in 1878, combined.
But why? Why have we failed so exceptionally?
As The Atlantic’s Ed Yong put it in his tour-de-force review “Anatomy of an American Failure,” “COVID‐19 is an assault on America’s body, and a referendum on the ideas that animate its culture.” Among those ideas is one particularly applicable to us, here and now.
America has failed so exceptionally precisely because we believe at our core that we are exceptional.
Exceptionalism is a catalyst of failure, an enemy of rationality and worst of all, it’s everywhere. The United States sat still while Asia and Europe fell victim to the virus in January and February. We didn’t prepare. We didn’t learn. After all, what could we, the greatest country in the history of the planet, possibly learn from the rest of the world?
Even as New York exploded, other states did little to prepare. What could they possibly have to learn from New York? As late as April 24, columnists like the New York Times’ Bret Stephens were writing things like “America Shouldn’t Have to Play by New York Rules,” arguing that the state was simply exceptional in the death it fell victim to.
Surprise! It wasn’t. As the tides finally began to change in the Northeast, the virus surged in the summer and overwhelmed the rest of the country. Catastrophic attempts at reopening in one state were simply repeated in another. Leaders learned nothing. After all, when you’re the exception, the experiences of others just don’t apply.
And yet, the president still contends that all of that simply didn’t happen, contends that the virus is still just a New York problem. “With the exception of New York & a few other locations, we’ve done MUCH better than most other Countries in dealing with the China Virus. Many of these countries are now having a major second wave. The Fake News is working overtime to make the USA (& me) look as bad as possible!” he tweeted on August 3. His majesty has a way with words.
Even within states, exceptionalism reigned. Bungled reopenings of indoor dining and bars have repeatedly blown up town after town, mayor after mayor. Exceptionalism has reigned even from person to person. Doesn’t it make your blood boil to take this seriously and see people on social media act like the rules and guidelines just don’t apply to them? It should. Doesn’t it make you feel like a sucker for even caring?
Now, let’s bring it on home. Colleges, too, have fallen ill to an epidemic of exceptionalism. Campus reopenings, one after another, have turned into super-spreader events. The University of Alabama has already racked up over 1,000 cases, University of Michigan has 281 and University of Notre Dame has 473 (to name a few). Does every school need to see first-hand that telling kids not to party, putting up dividers and crossing their fingers just doesn’t work?
There is no denying that Yale, as an institution, has taken reopening more seriously than many other schools. (But have we taken it more seriously than fully-remote Johns Hopkins?) But protocols (even really well-thought-out ones) can only do so much. As an August 18 article in the News discusses,“Opinions differ as to whether students will cooperate with protocols, a doubt [School of Public Health Dean Sten] Vermund dubbed the ‘million-dollar question.’”
With all due respect to Vermund’s expertise and with a degree of admiration for his faith in us, I don’t think it’s a million-dollar question. I need not ascribe ulterior motives to Yale’s administration (never mind room and board revenue) nor do I have to make wild conjectures about what is to come to think that maybe — just maybe — what has already happened at practically every other campus in the country can tell us something about what will happen at ours.
For the record, I hope I’m wrong. I hope that Yale made the right call. I hope that this semester goes swimmingly, that no one gets sick. Maybe Yale students will follow the rules other students have failed to follow, maybe we have what it takes to do it right.
After all, this is a school at which students are made to feel that they are exceptional by nature of their acceptance. It’s a school that is touted as an exceptional organ of an exceptional world full of exceptional people, people who do exceptional things and who, by virtue of all their exceptionality, are necessarily the exception to the rule. We’ll be fine. Right?
If this absolute nightmare of senseless, wholly preventable suffering has proven anything, it’s that a world in which we all are entitled to our own exception — where we can carry on as if our personal pandemics are over — is a world in which this nightmare never ends.
For as long as the pandemic is over, the pandemic will rage on, and on, and on.
ERIC KREBS is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate weeks. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .