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Why Covid-19's second pandemic summer is hitting differently

The feeling that normality has slipped through our fingers — again — is overwhelming.
Photo illustration: A line of incoming Covid-19 spores.
The pandemic's end keeps winking in and out of sight.MSNBC / Getty Images

Americans have been hearing, from one messenger or another, a similar idea for over a year now: The Covid-19 pandemic is ending — and soon, very soon. Once it does, things will revert back to, if not normal, something recognizable.

Instead, the seemingly never-ending nature of this crisis has Americans very much on edge. So when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that everyone should go back to wearing masks indoors, it was like a switch had been flipped.

There’s just a month and some change before the second Covid summer — the supposed Hot Vax Summer — ends. Yet things are not normal, no matter how much it feels like they should be, and we still have no idea when we can put the pandemic behind us.

As it is, a more contagious variant is spreading and hospitals are filling up again. We’re a long way from the peak number of deaths per day, but the curve just refuses to lie flat. It feels like bait-and-switch has been pulled, again, and our collective nerves — already very frayed — have come close to snapping.

In effect, the United States is going through the epidemiological version of the Peter Jackson treatment. In "The Return of the King," the final film in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy that Jackson directed, an unassuming audience thinks things have wrapped up after more than 2 1/2 hours of epic fantasy. The war against evil has ended, the One Ring has been destroyed, the screen goes black and the music swells; some people begin gathering their coats and empty popcorn buckets.

But wait — there’s almost a half-hour left in this movie, including at least two more false endings. Embarrassed, the audience settles back down. The real Tolkien fans in the audience snicker at the fools who dared assume that things were over just because every signal Jackson had given them said it was.

I’ve lost count of how many false endings we’ve had in this extended metaphor. There was the time last summer when the virus was a regional issue that would maybe spare other parts of the country and everyone was just hanging outside in the park. There was the time when the vaccines were finally granted emergency use authorization, pre-"Hunger Games" fight over them. There was when those vaccines finally stopped being a precious commodity and available to everyone, and Fourth of July barbecues would be totally chill. And there was a few short weeks ago, when fully vaccinated Americans were told they could come together and take off their masks.

A recent viral TikTok lamented “the way that we were so close to precedented times.” A particularly observant Twitter user wondered: “Is it just me or does it feel like there was a tiny window this summer where you could socialize or travel sort of safely and it's closed now and those of us who missed it because we were planning to socialize and travel later this year are kinda f-----?” No, it is not just you, ma’am. Things are — still! somehow! — very weird and uncertain.

I personally feel like I’m stuck in one of Zeno’s paradoxes. The Greek philosopher asked his students to imagine the flight path of an arrow, noting that its trajectory could be broken down into discrete points in space. When observed in a single, specific moment of time, Zeno noted, the arrow appears to be standing still. If at every instant of time, no motion is occurring — how then can we say motion is even real?

The pandemic is the arrow in this version of the thought experiment. It’s almost impossible not to feel trapped in the horrible now that makes up each moment of this Covid-centric reality, and thus entirely static. And as STAT's Megan Molteni put it, the “prospect of contending with a prolonged outbreak phase — and adjusting again to a constantly evolving roster of restrictions — has brought back another feature of pandemic living in America: anger.”

It’s why you’ve seen vaccinated Americans freaking out at unvaccinated people lately, even as 70 percent of adults finally have received their first shots. It’s why the idea of masking up again can feel like such a burden, even as we know that the delta variant’s spread has complicated things and that immunocompromised people still are particularly vulnerable. As one expert told Molteni, fear is the biggest motivator of that anger:

“It’s scary to admit that somebody else has power over you and you’re at their mercy and you’re afraid of them, but showing that is not a very American ideal,” said David Rosmarin, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a clinician at McLean Hospital. “Instead of expressing that fear, it’s a lot more comfortable to blame somebody else.”

He’s right; there is a strong level of fear undergirding this surge in anger at surging case rates. Namely a fear that this — all of this — is just how we live now.

On Monday, Dr. Catherine O’Neal, the chief medical officer of Louisiana’s largest individual hospital, referred to the last few weeks as the “darkest days of this pandemic.” I logically know medical workers are overwhelmed — again — and that her hospital alone is dealing with 155 Covid-19 patients. Yet emotionally it feels like there’s no way she can be telling the truth. Surely, all the other parts were the darkest days? But I know that’s the fear talking, clouding my empathy for the families of people in those hospital beds.

I don’t begrudge the CDC and other public health officials for offering up visions of a day where the pandemic was just over, period. That was exactly what most Americans needed to hear because it fits with our idea of how stories — and, accordingly, reality — should function. For everything that begins, there has to be an end — a happily ever after, or credits rolling, something to signify that it’s time to move on to the next distraction.

But it’s left us sorely unprepared for the mental struggle that has accompanied the ups and downs we’ve lived through since last March. I don’t know if there will be ever a Victory Over Covid Day and the catharsis it’ll bring. I don’t know if or when we see the day where Covid-19 is an endemic nuisance instead of a deadly threat.

I just know that one day, years down the line, I want to be sitting around with friends when someone goes, “Remember when Covid was a thing?” And some of us nod knowingly, or laugh darkly, or drift back into memory. But gathered there together, we’ll have proved Zeno wrong. The pandemic, and all the memories tied to it, will be in the past. The arrow will have moved forward.