The discomfort of emerging from the 'Covid cave' in an unvaccinated America

Half of Americans aren't fully vaccinated, so getting back to normal is still tough for many

Mask mandates have been lifted across the US, but many Americans still choose to wear face coverings. Reuters

A few weeks ago, President Joe Biden gave his long-delayed State of the Union message before a joint session of the US Congress. Both the content and the visuals from the event spoke of a return to normality. Unmasked members of Congress were seated next to one another. As has become pro forma for these annual affairs, members of the President's Democratic Party cheered for much of the speech, while the opposing Republicans sat on their hands. There were also a few bipartisan moments when Mr Biden spoke about Ukraine, and both sides of the aisle rose together in support. It all seemed so normal, except it wasn’t. Every member had to be vaccinated and tested before they could gain admission. It was normal – but a cautious normal.

Because Americans are tired of this pandemic and crave a return to normal life, it was understandable that Mr Biden was eager to send a message of relief to his beleaguered nation. Parents wanted their children back in school, and restaurants, which have endured repeated lockdowns in many American states, needed to reopen. Social isolation has taken an enormous toll on a generation of children and has had an impact on their learning. And while many businesses have been forced to close (some never to re-open), lost revenues have been devastating for those who struggled to weather the storm of the past two years.

But mask mandates have now been lifted in all 50 US states, and people are re-emerging. Washington feels alive once more. Restaurants are filling up, and rush hour is once again a nightmare. But a note of caution is in order. Americans and many in other countries felt the same last summer, when some thought the pandemic had receded. Then, too, people reacted with relief and began to act “normal” only to be smacked down by two new waves of the virus – both of which took a deadly toll. And now, as yet another wave of the virus is ascendant in Europe and China, it seems best to maintain some caution lest we completely let down our guard only to be smacked down again.

Taking my cue from these developments, I uncomfortably emerged from my Covid-19 cave a few weeks ago to attend a few political meetings and return to my office in downtown Washington. I want to share how all this felt because I know I’m not alone in feeling uneasy at the strangeness of being back in the world again.

What prompted my emergence was the fact that the Democratic National Committee was holding its first in-person meetings in over two years. Because I am the chair the DNC’s Ethnic Council – representing Democrats of European and Mediterranean ancestry – I needed to be present to preside at our council meeting. I also was invited to attend a gathering of the chairs of all councils where I was able to speak briefly with Mr Biden.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz speaks against mask mandates. Covid-19 is a heavily partisan issue in the US. AP
I know I’m not alone in feeling uneasy at the strangeness of being back in the world again

Everyone at the DNC was required to show proof of vaccination, to pass a Covid-19 test on the morning of the meeting, and to wear masks while on site. Even with these measures in place, it still felt strange and uncomfortable. I chose not to participate in any of the larger gatherings or the unmasked social activities that took place during the three-day event.

While it was a delight to see old friends and colleagues, whom I had only “visited” on Zoom during the past two years, I still tread cautiously on what had become unfamiliar turf. Part of it was, no doubt, a fear of infection. Coming from a large extended family that includes members who are immuno-compromised, I wasn’t willing to put them or myself at risk. But I freely acknowledge the simple, yet inescapable, truth that after two full years of social isolation, getting out into the world and re-engaging with others is both joyous and difficult. Some may say I’m like a victim of “Stockholm Syndrome” – more comfortable in my cave than outside in the world. But the reasons for the discomfort were more complicated.

The past two years have been a nightmare of loss and isolation. They have also been a void. It has been as if time stood still. There was life before Covid-19, and we hope there will be life after Covid-19. The problem is the world is not entirely finished with this pandemic.

I take some comfort in polls showing that I’m not alone. The US public, for instance, is evenly divided on the issue of ending the mask mandates and relaxing restrictions on social gatherings. To some extent, the division there is partisan. It is tragic that in today’s deeply divided America, the pandemic, like almost everything else, has become politicised. Too many Republicans believe that the pandemic was a Democratic-hyped conspiracy from the start. One quarter of Americans are still unvaccinated and one half aren’t fully vaccinated, and there’s compelling data that the unvaccinated are 10 times more likely to be hospitalised with serious illness from the disease than the fully vaccinated. In any case, despite the significant drop in daily reported cases, Covid-19 still accounts for one out of every seven deaths in the US. By any measure, America is not out of the woods.

After my outing, I decided to make an effort to return to my office. I’ve been there only four times in the past two years. Each time I’ve gone, it reminds me of Pompeii – a place frozen in the past before the disaster struck. Messages from two-and-a-half years ago that I won’t need to return. Stacks of reading materials so dated I’ll never read them. It’s strange to feel the need to be re-acclimated to a place I went daily for 35 years. It’s the same place. It’s just that everything else has changed.

Struggling to continue my emergence into the world, this week I’m taking an even bigger leap as I travel to New York for a few speaking engagements. The prospect of this has me feeling uneasy. You would think that this would be unusual for someone who has spent the majority of his adult life making speeches before audiences around the world and, even since Covid-19, does at least one a week via Zoom. But the prospect of doing what was once normal – getting on a plane, speaking before a few hundred people, exchanging pleasantries afterwards, and all the rest – now feels unsettling.

But I am now out of the cave and committed to making a go of it. Unlike those who never took Covid-19 seriously, I did. And unlike those who behave as if it was all just a passing nightmare and it’s over, I do not. For me, there’ll be no blissful return to “normal”. But life does go on, and I am determined to make the best of it while we can, and to do so cautiously.

Published: April 07, 2022, 4:00 AM
James Zogby

James Zogby

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National