Editor’s Notebook: Are things normal yet?
“When did the pandemic end, Grandpa?”
I might get that question one day, and I’m not sure how I’ll answer it. Was it over when I and my loved ones became fully vaccinated? When I stopped losing sleep over toilet paper supply chains? When I went grocery shopping without a mask for the first time since early 2020?
History loves neat beginnings and endings, and the pandemic has been stubbornly uncooperative in that regard. Then, on Monday, President Joe Biden told Congress that the national emergencies to fight COVID-19 would end May 11. So is that it?
“The expiration of the orders marks a new phase of the pandemic response, as U.S. officials prepare to remove some of the flexibilities that were instituted during the earliest and most dire days of the pandemic,” the Washington Post reported this week. “Since then, most Americans have been fully vaccinated against the virus and life has largely returned to normal. Still, an average of more than 500 Americans are dying every day from the virus.”
Five hundred Americans every day? It’s amazing what passes for “normal” when acute fear is replaced by familiarity and numbness. It’s amazing what people can get used to.
Perhaps more remarkable, considering the many horrors of these past few years, Americans continue to be entertained by the idea of societal collapse and its aftermath. The brilliant post-apocalyptic HBO Max drama “Station Eleven” debuted during the second pandemic winter and less than a year after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Last month, a year after the conclusion of “Station Eleven,” the same streaming service launched “The Last of Us,” an equally brilliant post-apocalyptic drama based on a beloved video game of the same name. “The Last of Us” neatly fills a void left by the November conclusion of “The Walking Dead,” which over 11 seasons taught us that our neighbors – the non-zombies – will be the real monsters during the zombie apocalypse.
Whether by way of war, disease, or interstellar threat, the artfully imagined end of the world always draws a crowd – even when reality itself seems poised to drop the curtain. We’re not whistling but streaming past the graveyard.
It’s difficult to say – from my little home, in a little town, in our little state, in one nation of many – what lasting effects the pandemic will have on the world. But the past three years have served as a lesson in fragility – not only of public health systems but the very institutions that boast of solidity.
We’ve all had illusions shattered, but the coldest of the water landed on Generation Z and they are the ones I worry about most. What kind of future do you pitch to a teen or young adult who’s lived through what they have – and how do you do it with a straight face? Good luck using the “back in my day” trope with kids raised on climate change, school shootings, and a political plague of anti-intellectualism. Then came the pandemic, which forced all of them into isolation when they most needed each other and pushed many of them deeper into social media. All the while, they watched their parents’ and grandparents’ generations not only fail to unite in shared adversity but actually make pre-existing societal fractures worse. You’re welcome, Gen Z, now straighten up and fly right.
I’m not sure when things will “return to normal” for the kids, but I don’t think it will be May 11.