Beware of seductive narratives about the coronavirus
We are caught in what students of narratives have shown to be the most seductive of them all: the fall and rise story. Once we were in the Garden of Eden; then we sinned and were kicked out and we are leading a miserable life; one day we will again bask in all the lost glories of heaven. Billions of people have found much comfort in some version of this Biblical story.
Once there was a community in which we were all brothers and sisters; then came feudalism and capitalism and it enslaved us; come the revolution, we shall rebuild a stateless wonder, a new community. Billions of followers of Karl Marx believed this tale. Thousands of novels, movies and TV shows draw on the same arc.
We seem not to tire of this story. Hence, there is little wonder that we love the tall tale that once upon a time, in January 2020, we had a normal life; then came the big bad wolf, COVID-19, and now we are suffering. However, soon – once people wear masks, distance, get tested and are traced – we shall go back to a good life, if maybe not exactly the way the old one was laid out. We are to follow phases 1, 2 and 3, and then we can fully “reopen.” We may have to wait for the vaccine but it, too, is coming, we are told, really soon.
As far as the vaccine is concerned, even if we get one that is safe and reliable by the end of the year – and I strongly urge you not to bet your salary on that – it will take at least a year until enough doses are produced to vaccinate enough people around the world to reach herd immunity. Once the supplies are available, enough people will still have to be vaccinated, which will be very challenging because various anti-vaccine movements and sentiments have already led very large numbers of people to state that they will refuse to be vaccinated. A poll in late May asked, “If a vaccine that protected you from the coronavirus was available for free to everyone who wanted it, would you definitely get it, probably get it, probably not get it or definitely not get it?” In response, approximately one in four U.S. adults said they would not get vaccinated (15 percent “definitely not,” 12 percent “probably not”).
Even if everyone agrees to be vaccinated, it is a project like the prevention of polio. The global eradication of that disease has continued for 32 years, and we are not quite done.
We must also face the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will approve vaccines if they are 50 percent effective. Moreover, we know from other vaccines that deal with viruses similar to COVID-19 (flu vaccines) that they are only partially effective. And all of this assumes that the virus will not mutate, which these kinds of viruses typically do, which means we shall need a modified, if not new, vaccine.
Most recently, reporting suggests that the vaccine may be effective only for a short period of time, maybe less than a year. Thus, even assuming that we will have all the supplies and full compliance with vaccine protocols (two very big assumptions), the existence of approved vaccines will not stop the spread of the virus.
In short, COVID-19 will bedevil us for years to come. We should stop thinking that if we just do this or that or both, we shall be able to “reopen.” True, some places look rather normal now, say China and New York, but many that looked just fine recently are now facing new waves of infections, including Israel, Japan, Spain, France and Germany.
Stop thinking about phases 2, 3 and 4, and focus on changes we should make that are inherently beneficial anyhow. Some examples follow. Riding bikes will remain safer than mass transit over the next years, because being outdoors is safer than being indoors and distancing is built in. Riding bikes is anyhow better for the rider’s health, the environment and for traffic congestion. Ergo, it makes sense to permanently turn many roads into bike lanes.
Young children, if the current data hold, can go to pre-k, kindergarten, child-care centers and parent cooperatives. Older children, who may have to learn part-time online at home, will have to adjust to less helicoptering by their parents, who will continue to be busy working at home, and employers will have to learn that the workday stops at 5:00pm.
Schools will be safer (to the extent they can be opened) if students attend in shifts to make for smaller classes and hence enable more distancing. To make up for the learning loss, pupils would benefit from an 11-month school year. There are many reasons to move from the farm-driven calendar to a modern one anyhow. True, this may involve increasing pay for teachers and hiring more. But this is a price worth paying.
Being outdoors is much safer than being indoors. Making pedestrian plazas – closing streets so restaurants can serve outside and so that there are spaces for people to interact at a safe distance – is good for social bonding and community building, which we badly need. Restaurants better realize that takeout and delivery need to be a major part of their businesses, and not a side show. The offices of corporations that announce that they are moving to permanent work-from-home arrangements need to be converted into residences.
Perhaps most consequentially, we all need to embrace our new homebound, simplified life. More time with family and a small circle of relatives and friends, less going out and less dressing up, and more time to read. We continue to express our concerns about Big Tech, but acknowledge that without zooming, online shopping, social media and streaming, staying at home would be even more difficult to bear. We may well earn less, but also spend less, a life that has many social and environmental virtues. The economy will do okay as long as the remaining work is distributed widely, rather than some people working long hours or two jobs while others have none.
Once we accept that there will be no reopening in the way this term is usually understood, into a semi-normal pre-2020 buzzing economy, we will be ready to look at our public and personal lives and find realistic ways to lead a good life, rather than getting caught up in seductive narratives. The question is not what we shall do as the virus recedes, but what we shall do if does not.
Amitai Etzioni is the co-editor of “Voluntary Simplicity” and the author of many other books, including, most recently, “Reclaiming Patriotism,” which is available for download without charge. He is a university professor and professor of international affairs at George Washington University.