Give Us The Old Normal
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I have the same experience after every Zoom call. I leave, the audio cuts out, and I am left staring at my computer screen and sitting in a room by myself. This past year has been one long sequence of these moments. We can imitate social interaction and a functional school day, sometimes convincingly, but deep down, we all feel the same fatigue. We feel it when another day passes without leaving the house. We feel it in the constant anxiety around strangers and the guilt for those who have had it worse in the pandemic. This trial has lasted for over a year, and I want to cancel my subscription.
The vaccine has arrived, and every American over 16 can receive it. The only group that stands between us and a return to normal is the vaccine deniers. No, I am not talking about those on Facebook who believe vaccines cause autism or the skeptics who question the side effects, though they are also dangerous. Instead, I want to focus on the vaccine deniers who control government policy. They take the vaccines themselves but doubt their efficacy. At a vaccinated gathering, they eat outside and wear masks “just to be extra safe.” They want a “new normal” where schools stay partially remote and masks are a part of social life. However, these deniers are nearly as harmful and anti-scientific as the skeptics they love to beclown.
The most complete information regarding vaccine efficacy comes from Israel, which has shared comprehensive vaccine data in exchange for early access. The results were unequivocally positive. The Pfizer vaccine was 97 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 and almost entirely effective at preventing serious cases. However, a vaccine denier might retort, “That still leaves a chance for death or for them to pass it onto someone else. To avoid risk, we should still partake in some social distancing and masking.” However, the vaccine should not be considered on just an individual level. Once enough people receive the vaccine, transmission rates will decrease to a point where the chance of catching the virus plummets. Israel exemplifies this phenomenon. Back in January, it incurred around 50 thousand COVID-19 cases per week. Last week, with 61 percent of the country vaccinated with at least one dose, it only had 110 cases. That number is decreasing every day. America will quickly catch up to Israel on vaccination rates, with 40 percent of the country already having received one dose. Like Israel, we have already seen a sharp decline in deaths and will only see an acceleration as more people are vaccinated.
The data is clear, yet so many people deny the effectiveness of vaccines. They too hate the repetitiveness of our current lives, so why do they haggle to maintain the status quo? The answer lies in how humans calculate risk. We are terrible at it. No one can intuitively envision the chance of dying from the coronavirus in the same way we cannot evaluate the odds of winning the lottery or getting eaten by a shark. We instead rely on fear. The problem is that what started out as a healthy dose of fear for many rose into a state of panic and hardened into paranoia during the long days of lockdown. This paranoia can foster a negative response to data suggesting vaccines may allow us to return to normal life. It is similar to survivors of a sinking boat having worn life vests for so long that they need them on dry land. Across our life, we accept some risk. My normal trip to Stuyvesant involves speeding cars, stabby strangers, and deadly scaffolding, yet that does not deter me from going to school. After widespread vaccination, the risk of catching COVID-19 falls enough below reasonable levels to support the return to normal.
My demands based on this evidence are simple: full reopening. I do not want the new normal but the old normal in all its glory: sports games, offices, movie theaters, and bars open at full capacity. Come September, schools should also reopen fully: no online learning, no social distancing, and no masks, with students packed in a class the way only NYC public schools know how. The logic of those who suggest indefinite social distancing or masking only applies in an unvaccinated world. With minute case rates, vaccinated adults will have nothing to fear from COVID-19. Children were not in danger in the first place—only 0.00047 percent of US COVID-19 deaths are of those under 18—and experts expect vaccine approval for this entire group soon. I do not want mask mandates for public spaces once the pandemic abates for the same reason I do not want to wear them at home: they are uncomfortable, inhibit social interaction, and soon will be unnecessary.
Regardless of virus rates, this pandemic will not truly end until we return to normal. As Morgan Freeman once said in “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), “These walls are funny. First, you hate ’em. Then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.” We are institutionalized in a prison of our own making. I propose we simply walk out the front door.