After all these years, New York remains America’s first gateway to the world — a status that brings many good things, but also makes it a place where new variants of the coronavirus can spread quickly. The good news is that the city seems to have withstood the backing away quickly Omicron waves relatively well. The hospital system was strained but did not break; according to city data, “only” 2,846 people died of Covid-19 between December 5 and January 22.
It’s a very different story from what happened in the initial wave of 2020, when many observers suggested that New York City was particularly vulnerable due to its high population density and reliance on public transportation. – a diagnosis that turned out to be wrong as the coronavirus then spread across the nation.
This time the city was able to cope much better, partly because a large majority of its residents are vaccinated and generally follow rules about wearing masks in public spaces, showing proof of vaccination before dining indoors, etc. In other words, New Yorkers behaved fairly responsibly by American standards.
Unfortunately, American standards are pretty bad.
America has done a terrible job in its handling of Covid. We had more deaths, as a percentage of population, than any other large, wealthy country, with even greater disparity during the Omicron wave than before. Why? Because so many Americans do not have behaved responsibly.
And I know I’m not the only one angry at this irresponsibility, which has been encouraged by politicians and other public figures. Surely there are many Americans who feel a simmering rage against the minority that has endangered the rest of us and degraded our nation’s quality of life.
There have been remarkably few polls on how responsibly acting Americans view those who aren’t — the posturing and occasional violence of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers grabs all the headlines — but the available surveys suggest that during the Delta wave, a majority of vaccinated Americans were frustrated or angry with the unvaccinated. I wouldn’t be surprised if those numbers increased under Omicron, so that Americans, fed up with their countrymen who don’t do the right thing, now form a silent majority.
Oh, and don’t tell me how you behave during a pandemic is just an individual choice. I do not claim any particular scientific expertise, but there seems to be clear evidence that wearing masks in some settings has helped limit the spread of the coronavirus. Vaccines also likely reduce the spread, largely because the vaccinated are less likely to be infected, even though they can be. More importantly, not getting vaccinated dramatically increases the risk of becoming seriously ill and therefore stressing overcrowded hospitals.
Also consider the burden of proof here. You don’t need to have 100% confidence in the experts to accept that flying without a mask or eating indoors without being vaccinated might well endanger other people – and for what? I know some people in red America imagine that blue cities have become places of joyless tyranny, but the truth is that at this point New Yorkers with vaccine cards in their wallets and masks in their pockets can do just about anything they want, at the cost of only a slight inconvenience.
This, in turn, means that those who refuse to take basic Covid precautions are, at best, selfish – ignoring the welfare and comfort of their fellow citizens. At worst, they engage in deliberate aggression – putting others in danger to make a point. And the fact that some people around us deliberately endanger others has its own psychological impact. Tell me you don’t mind when the person sitting across the aisle or standing behind you in line goes conspicuously without a mask or keeps their mask down.
Much of this behavior is political. Republicans, fed a constant diet of partisan media misinformation – did I mention that Fox News required its employees to disclose their vaccination status since last summer? – are four times as likely as Democrats to be unvaccinated and much less likely to wear masks when grocery shopping. Thus, America’s bad pandemic largely reflects a bet by right-wing politicians and opinion leaders that they can reap benefits by integrating basic public health precautions with the culture war.
The question is, isn’t there a way to make this cynical bet backfire? Many Americans are angry at the bad behavior that has helped keep this pandemic going. This quiet rage of officials should be a political force to be reckoned with.
I know Democrat politicians are very reluctant to criticize a bloc of voters (Republicans don’t seem to have that problem). And it makes sense to loosen restrictions as Omicron fades. But I see no reason not to prosecute politicians who encourage irresponsible behavior. Early indications are that Virginia’s new governor, Glenn Youngkin, is already pay a price for its Covid policies relaxing past restrictions. Hopefully we’ll see more.