Is the COVID-19 pandemic finally over? - opinion

I wish COVID never came into our lives. Moreover, I wish masking could be a personal choice, free of stigma. 

 Face masks fly off, but is the COVID-19 pandemic really over? (Illustrative) (photo credit: Aboodi Vesakaran/Unsplash)
Face masks fly off, but is the COVID-19 pandemic really over? (Illustrative)
(photo credit: Aboodi Vesakaran/Unsplash)

COVID is finally over. How do I know? I took my mask off. 

Not everywhere, but in more places than I have before – in a hotel, while dining indoors; during a packed lecture; picking up The Jerusalem Post from my local Steimatzky bookstore.

Of course, I know that COVID is not really over. People are still getting sick every day. The US is on track to see 150,000 COVID deaths this year. (If current numbers hold, Israel will have just over 1,000 COVID deaths in the coming 12 months.) 

But at a certain point, despite the documented dangers, we have to make the switch to “live with COVID.” Not just in words but in deeds, too. 

For many people, that moment came when indoor mask mandates were relaxed. My wife, Jody, and I held on for longer. Our turning point was the fifth vaccine, the Omicron booster, which we got a few weeks ago.

 The COVID-19 vaccine (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY) The COVID-19 vaccine (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY)

The feeling on that day was: We’ve done all we can do. This booster probably won’t prevent us from getting COVID again (COVID is likely to continue to infect 50% of us every year, according to Trevor Bedford, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center), but the cumulative effect is to make the disease less severe. 

Besides which, I had a pretty positive experience when I caught COVID in March and a dose of Paxlovid knocked out my mostly mild symptoms in under a week. So, my thinking went, I may be immunocompromised, but I survived it once, I will survive it again.

We’re still masking up on public transportation, on planes, in crowded locations. Which leads to an awkward place.

“Mask wearing has been relegated to a sharply shrinking sector of society,” writes Kathryn Wu in The Atlantic. “It has become, once again, a peculiar thing to do.”

“Mask wearing has been relegated to a sharply shrinking sector of society. It has become, once again, a peculiar thing to do.”

Katherine Wu

How could it not, when influential figures like Joe Biden declare, as he did on TV’s 60 Minutes, that “The pandemic is over… If you notice, no one’s wearing masks.”

But wishful thinking is not epidemiological accuracy. Donald Trump was not some Greek oracle when he proclaimed in 2020, “One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” No, you can’t will COVID out of existence; that’s not how viruses work. 

And long COVID remains a huge problem. 

An alarming study from Maccabi Healthcare Services, one of Israel’s largest HMOs, found that 34.6% of participants reported not returning to their baseline health condition some five months since recovering from COVID.

Nevertheless, masking – in America at least – is down to 29% of the population, compared with 50% to 80% in the first two years of the pandemic. 

“It [wearing a mask] feels like something that now needs an explanation,” a friend told Wu. “It’s like showing up in a weird hat, and you have to explain why you’re wearing it.”

“It’s OK, you can take your mask off here,” has become an increasingly common refrain, even when it’s clearly not OK. 

I first encountered it during the height of the pandemic, when I flew to Florida for my vitreoloysis treatment, an experimental laser procedure for eye floaters. The doctor, with whom I was in close physical contact, said just that while not wearing a mask himself (this despite the sign at the front door clearly stating masks must be donned). 

I wore my mask during the procedure and didn’t get COVID. Yet I felt a strong urge to conform. He was a doctor, after all. 

“You can feel when you’re the only one doing something,” immunocompromised physician Meghan McCoy told Wu for her Atlantic article. “It’s noticeable.”

MCCOY NOTED that, typically, “there’s no big sign on our foreheads that says ‘This person doesn’t have a functioning immune system.’” 

Masks now have become exactly that kind of sign.

In our new post-COVID reality, masks draw attention, like a wheelchair, prosthetic device or service dog. They “invite compassion but also skepticism, condescension and invasive questions,” Wu writes. 

To go mask-free, by contrast, is like “reverting to a past that was safer, more peaceful,” Wu notes. “Discarding masks may feel like jettisoning a bad memory, whereas clinging to them reminds people of an experience they desperately want to leave behind.”

Don’t we all want that?

Well, yes… and no. 

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it was exhilarating to eat in a restaurant again, to walk around a museum unencumbered by a tightly tied Sonovia cloth. 

And yet, this “new normal” is also an admission that we’ve failed.

  • Failed to stop a virus that will now circulate among human beings forever. There are, after all, still DNA remnants of the 1918 flu pandemic in today’s annual flu outbreaks. 
  • Failed to depoliticize science such that mask-wearing, along with vaccines, became not a matter of public safety but one of red vs blue, Right vs Left.
  • Failed to embrace good governance over populism, vilification and victimization.

The other night, Jody and I went to the Yes Planet in Jerusalem to see Cinema Sabaya, Israel’s top Ophir award-winning film this year. We didn’t wear our masks – until we heard the man behind us coughing, at which point we donned our cloths in the dark and felt somewhat more secure.

We’ll also wear our masks more consistently prior to a big event or vacation so that we don’t get sick and miss out.

I wish COVID never came into our lives. Moreover, I wish masking could be a personal choice, free of stigma. 

Wu asked her mother, who lives in Taiwan, “How is masking going in Taipei?” 

It is still quite common in public spaces, even where it wasn’t mandated, her mother explained. 

When Wu asked why, her mother’s response was telling. 

“Why not?” 

The writer’s book Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com