Ending Covid in the Two Americas
I was having lunch last Wednesday with a friend in a bar in my hometown, and he started chatting with the bartender, who had been in his high school class. The bartender was saying that he had worked there on and off during college, then came back for good “when Covid ended.” He clarified immediately: “So, about a year ago.” Hearing that was surreal—Covid had not ended at all where I now live (in D.C.), and certainly not an entire year ago.
By “Covid,” of course, neither he nor I actually meant the particular coronavirus that made its way around the world in 2020 after (likely) leaking from a research lab in Wuhan. We meant everything it had caused—or, perhaps more accurately, every injustice big and small for which it gave the ruling class a pretext. School closures, economic shutdowns, mask theater, vaccine fanaticism—these, more than the flu-like symptoms that can do real damage to vulnerable patients, define Covid for the vast majority of us.
Apparently, all of that came to a close a while ago back home. I’m not sure I saw a single mask the entire week I was there. Even in the winter off-season, the waterfront district where we were eating was pretty heavily trafficked. My 76-year-old grandfather came over for Thanksgiving dinner the next day, and lived to tell the tale. Besides that one offhanded mention by the bartender, I don’t think Covid came up once in conversation during the entire visit.
I returned to Washington Sunday afternoon, a full six days after Mayor Bowser had finally lifted her second citywide mask mandate. Nevertheless, as soon as I crossed into the District, I started to notice people walking alone, outside, on empty sidewalks, masked. What exactly they thought they were protecting themselves from was entirely unclear. Why they felt they had to was even more inscrutable. Yet here they were, in the open air, draped in the sacramental vestments of the medical religion.
It is hard to think at this point that Covid will ever end for these people. The behaviors and attitudes that help perpetuate the pandemic regime have been conditioned in them in a way that will be very hard to shake. The wild-eyed cat ladies who post gleefully on Facebook and Twitter about continued double-masking after their third shot of Moderna are not going to stop just because Muriel Bowser has finally told them they can. They don’t want to.
They live in a world of their own. It was made and is ruled by a merciless god called Science, whose high priest and self-professed voice on earth is Dr. Anthony Fauci. Its highest goods are all material or shallow: mere life, stimulus checks. The deeper things to which these should be linked, the fruits of true religion most of all, but also the basics of physical health and fitness and real community, are either unknown or reviled. The moral landscape of their world is utterly barren.
We cannot possibly expect them to think about things the same way we do, to act the way we might act. They are not like us; they have been formed by an altogether different reality. So what to do?
It is trendy on the right these days to talk about America as two countries coexisting within one border. In its more-or-less current iteration, the talking point goes back at least to David Brooks’ famous division of Red America and Blue America, but now—in a moment many say is as divisive as any since the 1860s—the conversation has lurched towards talk of some kind of National Divorce. The ever widening gap between coastal elites and heartland folk will simply have to be formalized, these people claim, with Red America and Blue America giving up on each other at last.
But it could not possibly be so simple. There is nothing as easy or as final as civil war in our future.
There is no Red America, and there is no Blue America. My hometown, where the Covid cult lost control last time around the sun, is in deep-blue Massachusetts. The Swamp where I’m stranded now is locked between two states (Maryland and Virginia) with elected Republican governors. The actual divide is something much closer to Michael Lind’s paradigm of hub cities and heartlands—the progressive metropolis on the one hand, and pretty much everything else on the other.
There is no way to divorce the hub cities from the rest of the country. Yes, right now, it feels like we can. I spent the last week in small towns in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania that felt absolutely normal. And they should. But the strategy of retreating to these places while the Muriel Bowsers and Bill De Blasios of the world wreck the hubs from which we’ve fled can only end in failure. We are too connected.
It is not enough to extract ourselves from the places where the new religion rules; it is precisely in these places that the fight against it is most important. As long as Covid—not the virus but the ideology—keeps its reservoirs in the cities, the heartlands will never really be safe from it.
They’ve practically told us as much. Two days after my run-in with reality in a Massachusetts bar, the world received news of a scary new variant in South Africa: Omicron. It hasn’t reached the U.S. yet, but when it does, the hub city oligarchs stand ready to act against it. Per the New York Times, they’ve learned from their mistakes: “After nearly two years of facing accusations that they were too slow and timid in tackling the pandemic, many policymakers would rather risk overreacting to a new threat than underreacting.”
In the fantasy world where Tony Fauci is pontifex maximus, the problem with Covid round one was that the government didn’t do nearly enough. People who subscribe to that lunatic creed will never be content to leave you in peace while you infect your neighbors. You should not be content to leave them in peace while they infect their own.