On many a lengthy road trip, along around sundown, I would hear that plaintive question from my kids in the back seat of the family station wagon: “Are we there yet?” My standard reply was “We’re almost there.” It’s been a year since most of America went into lockdown over the surge in COVID-19 infections. We were told that if we behaved, listened to the scientists, wore masks everywhere, washed our hands frequently, stayed home, followed “the science,” and waited patiently for further instructions, vaccines and other medicines would be developed, the curve would flatten and, by sometime in 2021, we could surely return to normal. So, here we are in 2021, spring is upon us, we have the vaccines, we’re still obediently wearing masks and washing our hands compulsively and now we all want to know: Are we there yet?
Well, apparently not. We have to keep wearing masks and are told that wearing two would be even better. I can barely breathe and speak audibly through one. There are continuing concerns over variants of the disease and the rollout of the vaccines has been slow. Many public school systems are still shut down although experts tell us most kids are not at great risk from the disease. But they are very much at risk of being left behind academically and even more at risk from a social development and mental health standpoint. Recall your own childhood. Wasn’t one of your greatest emotional needs the company of your friends? First responders and essential workers put their health at risk daily to keep us safe, maintain the food supply and provide vital services but many teachers, apparently, were just too fragile or fearful to return to their classrooms, even for the sake of the kids.
So, if we’re not there yet, how will we know when we finally get there? Or will we ever actually get there and return to normal, that is, life as we used to live it with things like Friday and Saturday evening gatherings of friends complete with handshakes, hugs, kisses (if considered sexually appropriate any longer, of course), and no masks? Will we return to crowded ballparks, stadiums, arenas, movie theatres, concert halls, opera houses, etc., and sit shoulder-to-shoulder, shouting, cheering and doing high fives with total strangers? If not, will this cause the demise of symphony orchestras, opera companies and theatre? Could it be (gasp!) that the way we are advised to live today will become the new normal?
As of this writing, about 60 million Americans have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine and a little over half of them have been fully vaccinated. President Joe Biden has promised that there will be enough vaccine doses for every American adult by the end of May. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) consequently issued new guidance for vaccinated Americans. They may now congregate in small, repeat small, groups at home without masks. Grandparents in this group may now visit or be visited by their grandchildren. Vaccinated adults can begin—just begin, mind you-- to plan mask-free dinners with vaccinated friends.
Here’s news for the CDC. Many of us didn’t wait for you to give us your permission to exercise such basic freedoms. Guidance or guidelines can be defined in three ways: rules, principles or advice. Advice from experts is definitely needed and welcome but no one authorized you to set rules. That’s what we elect our public officials to do and even then, if enough of their constituents disagree with the rules, we may vote them out of office or recall them. Americans, by nature, tend to be risk-takers where their personal freedoms are concerned. They tend to react with alacrity when they feel that these basic freedoms are at risk. Eleven states have already fully re-opened their schools, restaurants and other businesses without waiting for CDC guidance and more will surely follow. The world’s largest economy cannot remain locked down without serious and growing consequences in a highly competitive world where China is gaining rapidly on us and those risks must be weighed and balanced against the risks posed by the pandemic. Life is full of tough decisions and trade-offs. Non-elected bureaucrats and scientists may help inform these decisions but don’t get to make them.
Meanwhile, a lot has happened in the past year and America may never be quite the same again. The racial divide has widened, thanks largely to woke identity politics and a summer of tolerated violence, looting and destruction that has made matters worse. Every shooting of a black man by a police officer, regardless of the circumstances, is now likely to provoke a demonstration that may turn violent as will every acquittal of an officer involved regardless of the evidence that may be presented in court. Potential jurors know this and many may be unwilling to serve because of fears for their own and others’ safety. Police departments, facing demonization, calls for de-funding, and loss of public support, are demoralized. The murder rate and violent crime is spiraling in large cities, in New York by about 50% in 2020. People who can afford to are fleeing crime-infested cities. This may be part of a new normal until we achieve the colorblind society that Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned instead of one that celebrates and promotes victimhood.
Razor wire and fences surround our Capitol in Washington to protect our legislators. Apparently they now believe that fences actually do work. In Minneapolis, many buildings are boarded up and walled off with barriers and barbed wire. Up to 2500 National Guard troops will be on hand for the violence expected during and after the trial of Derek Chauvin. Protests reportedly are planned even before the trial begins and he has already been convicted in the court of public opinion.
The national mood seems to be descending into one of perpetual anger. People feel anger toward restrictions, politicians and anyone who dares to disagree with them. In spite of reduced highway traffic because of the pandemic restrictions, traffic fatalities were up in many areas due to speeding, driving under the influence and dangerously reckless driving. It’s as if some drivers have a death wish and no regard for the lives of others. Road rage incidents have increased. Social media reeks with angry posts. Americans are politically polarized and will likely remain so until transformational leaders emerge in both parties who will put the good of the nation ahead of their own narrow interests, political careers and biases and learn to compromise, debate and negotiate. Until then, the dysfunction, distress and pessimism we see around us today may well be part of the new normal for quite a while. Let’s hope otherwise.