Reviews | The pandemic has exposed our empathy deficit

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden, Told “PBS NewsHour” that “certainly” America is now “out of the pandemic phase” of Covid-19 as our rates of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths continue to decline. But, he added, “we are not going to eradicate this virus”. Our best hope is to “keep this level very low and vaccinate people intermittently”, perhaps as often as every year.

In other words, the endemic has arrived.

Like Fauci later Told The Washington Post, “We are really in a transition phase, from a deceleration in numbers to hopefully a more controlled phase and endemicity.”

The cost to get here has been almost incalculable. There have been 81 million recorded Covid cases in America and nearly a million deaths. The US is now averaging around 360 deaths a day from Covid, which would be an alarming number in almost any other setting, but it looks like progress from the peak of the pandemic, when thousands people died every day.

Still, this moment doesn’t feel as festive as last summer. In a triumphant speech on July 4, Biden said that “245 years ago, we declared our independence from a distant king. Today we are closer than ever to declaring our independence in the face of a deadly virus. He was quick to say, however, that the battle against Covid was far from over: “We still have a lot of work to do.”

We would, in fact, have another deadly wave of the virus.

We are now tired of any talk of independence from the virus or victory over it. People are celebrating small things, like those who clapped on planes last week when they were told masks were no longer needed.

We have been well educated by this virus, humbled by it, so we now understand that he has no intention of doing what Donald Trump once did promised it would be: “One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.”

What has gone is our patience and our precautions.

A Public Affairs Research Center Associated Press-NORC survey of American adults released last month found that ‘less than half always or often avoid non-essential travel, stay away from large groups and wear face coverings outside their homes’ for the first time since at least February 2021. “And just a third, avoid others as much as possible.

People absorbed their personal risk calculations and simply decided they would return more to so-called normal life, even if the virus continues to claim lives.

We seem, as a society, to have resigned ourselves to the virus, accepting some level of illness and death as the new norm.

But what is keeping remnants of the virus from settling on the topography of America’s existing inequalities? What happens to all the traumas? How is it treated?

How can we even begin to make the connection between increased violent crime and increased youth depression, financial stress, and staggering levels of disruption and death?

Take, for example, a report released last week by the Pew Research Center, which found that the economic hardship of the first nine months of the pandemic hit low- and middle-income families the hardest. “From 2019 to 2020, the median income of low-income households decreased by 3.0% and the median income of middle-income households fell by 2.1%,” the researchers wrote. “In contrast, the median income of high-income households in 2020 was about the same as in 2019.”

As the well-to-do shopped online and dreamed of delayed vacations, whole swathes of America fell into an even more desperate state. The pandemic has not been an inconvenience but rather a life-changing experience, a complete reorganization of things, a gateway to more suffering, not only from disease but also from societal ills.

Hunger, trauma, violence. The pandemic has exacerbated all three, and more. But we don’t center therapeutic remedies in our discussions of the sequel. We center repressions and alms. We focus on displacement rather than recovery. We focus a “return to normal” on the plight of those for whom normality was never enough.

An America now plagued by endemic disease faces a real challenge: are we going to behave differently and do better, are we going to take care of people rather than handcuff them, or are we going to resort to the response we have too often – of not allowing ourselves to really register the need so that we don’t really have to deal with it?

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