As we look at another surge, another variant, and another school year of Covid, it might be worth thinking about the conditions that made this situation possible. The conditions are, as is so often the case, multiple, including the nature of the virus itself, technological, and economic conditions. What I would like to focus on briefly are the ideological conditions, or the way in which the virus took advantage of social contradictions as much biological weakness.
1) Exceptions. Some of the first news that came out about COVID stressed that some percentage, as high as about 60% would be completely asymptomatic. This news was sometimes meant to spread caution, to let people know that they could feel fine and still infect others, but for many this meant that there was a good chance that the disease would not affect them at all (I realize that asymptomatic and not being infected are not the same thing). The odds for many people seemed good. I think that this is particularly true for a country like the US were the ruling ideology is often about seeing oneself as an exception to a general rule. We are told that most will not make it rich, but believe that we will, or, a little closer to home, that most entering graduate school will not find tenure track jobs, but we believe ourselves to be the exception (or, in the words of The Wire, a "smart ass pawn."). COVID just become another general pattern that we see ourselves as exceptions to, something that happens to other people.
2) Essential Workers. The early year or so was in part defined by an increased awareness of how our lives were made possible by all sorts of workers, in food service, trucking, retail, logistics, all of whom produce distribute, and sell the goods we rely on. There was also an awareness of how we are dependent on teachers, nurses, and hospital staff in more ways than we imagined. It suddenly became clear that schools were not just for people who had children, but also for people who needed people who have children to show up to work; one thread in an otherwise invisible web of dependency and connection. There was a brief recognition of this fact; some of it was symbolic, banging on pots pans and impromptu airshows, but some of it was material as well, increased wages for essential workers. However, this fundamental fact of life became increasingly awkward as time went by, and there was a concerted effort to return to the normal state of not thinking about how the food got to the table or who the person behind the counter was as a person. First, there was the ghoulish demand that lives would have to sacrificed to start the economy. Then, there was just the mute compulsion of everyday life, the gravitational pull of normal. Our entire way of life is predicated on not thinking about other people, on seeing ourselves as kingdoms within a kingdom, separate from nature and from our dependency on others.
3) The Mediasphere. I am no conspiracy theorist, and do not really care if COVID came from a lab leak or not (unless the lab also has an antidote, then I do not see how this changes anything), but I cannot imagine a virus more capable of taking advantage of the current economy and ecology of attention than COVID. Part of this goes back to the first point. There are radically different experiences with COVID from a person who is affected so slightly that they do not even know they have it to someone suffering from a set of chronic life altering conditions that have come to be known as long COVID. Combine this with a predominantly anecdotal way of thinking about the world, a focus on individual stories, situations, and perspectives and you have competing stories, which, thanks to social media, become competing realities, different worlds. Any attempt to create a dominate narrative, a collective consensus about what was at stake was hindered from the get go, first by a general distrust in government by some, which saw every precaution as a conspiracy of control, and then eventually by others, as the CDC and government gave in to the open conspiracy of capitalism, which needed us to return to work and consumption as soon as possible. The final situation of all this is almost one in which there is no consensus, no dominant view, but only competing divergent views with their own standards and sources of information. I do not want to sound like Plato, but it seems to me that one of the benefits of living in a society is that we should not have to "do our own research," to learn a little about virology, vaccines, epidemiology, airflow, etc., just to go about our lives in a pandemic, we should, at least on some level expect that scientists and other experts to do that for us.
4) The future. I do not claim to know or understand everything about this virus, but if at least some of what I have read about its long term effects are true then we are all looking at a bleaker future, of getting sick more often, and with that decline in the quality of life there is a decline in quantity as well, post COVID heart attacks and strokes cut lives short. I do not know what people will make of this, but my fear is that it will become accepted just as we have accepted longer working hours, worsening pay, and a general decline in the quality of life. Add to this the impending climate collapse and it seems like we have two options, either come to accept that things are going to be a lot worse or choose to start making things better. It is clear to me that COVID was a "civilization or barbarism" moment, and for a brief second it seemed like we were choosing the former, choosing to support each other collectively. That moment was short lived, and we went back to barbarism, even doubled down on it, but I have some hope, even now, that the cost of that choice will still help us choose differently in the future. The other thing I learned from COVID is that events, even crises, have limited efficacy on their own. They change things, but how they do so is not determined. They make the conditions for history, but what happens in those conditions is up to us.