To the point about the long COVID winter starting to thaw, I think this piece from Jacob Stern this past October is worth thinking about. A few points:
It’s easy to think of the flu as an immutable fact of winter life, more inconvenience than calamity. But each year, on average, it sickens roughly 30 million Americans and kills more than 30,000 (though the numbers vary widely season to season). The elderly, the poor, and people of color are all overrepresented among the casualties. By some estimates, the disease’s annual economic cost amounts to nearly $90 billion. We accept this, when we think about it at all, as the way things are. Except that this past year, things were different: During the 2020–21 flu season, the United States recorded only about 2,000 cases, 17,000 times fewer than the 35 million it recorded the season before. That season, the flu killed 199 children; this past season, as far as we know, it killed one.
That was last year, not this current year (which has seemingly seen the flu come back under fewer COVID restrictions), but still, a couple of those stats are wild. $90B in cost. One death of a child. One! And it’s fascinating when we think about opening back up society (which, to be clear, I believe we should at this point) and the trade-offs.
Masks, in theory, are one of the simplest pandemic-times interventions to hold on to. They are “the low-hanging fruit,” says the Emory University immunologist Anice Lowen, because, unlike shutdowns or restrictions on indoor gatherings, they don’t disrupt our daily routines. In an ideal world, several epidemiologists told me, people would mask in crowded indoor spaces during flu season—if not all the time, then at least when case counts are on the rise. If that became the norm, Marr told me, “we would see huge reductions in colds and flus. No question.”
This would have been an interesting/useful outcome of this COVID nightmare. Unfortunately, the mask situation has been politicized to no end, so there’s basically no chance this happens in the U.S. even though it has long been the norm in many Asian countries (which have had to deal with different coronaviruses beyond common colds for a while!). We were forced to see the benefit of it (and the downsides, which are largely all about inconvenience), and yet we’re going to reject them.
That’s not so much a statement as an acknowledgement that it is what it is. We could largely end things like the flu and colds if we wanted to. We just did it! We have the way but not the will. COVID will (eventually) be the same. So perhaps it’s time to acknowledge this and get to this point now.
Until the advent of sewer systems and water treatment, Marr said, people accepted deadly waterborne diseases as a basic fact of life. These days, the idea of drinking dirty water strikes most as repulsive, even as we resign ourselves to breathing filthy air and contracting seasonal respiratory viruses. But now, Marr said, “we’ve seen we don’t have to live that way.” By better ventilating our buildings—which to this point have largely been optimized for energy efficiency, not air quality—she said, we could do for air what we have done for water.
Perhaps this will be one silver-lining here.