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Adapting and adjusting to a world with COVID-19

David von Drehle of The Washington Post notes that Americans seem to be adapting to living COVID-19, but not so well with a general sense of uncertainty.

As the world nears the end of the second pandemic year, illusions of victory over the virus have vanished. That’s a helpful dose of reality. Conquering covid-19 wasn’t a realistic goal — but for a long time, many of us acted as if it might be. In their different ways, both former president Donald Trump and President Biden have spoken as if the disease were imminently conquerable. In addition to Biden’s proclamation this past summer, Trump promised in the early days of the pandemic that covid-19 would “wash through” the country and be gone.

Viruses don’t just go away. Nor are they easily wiped out. They spread by the trillions, constantly replicating. They evolve over hours, not eons. So by the time humanity woke up to the new pathogen around the beginning of 2020, it was already too widespread to corral and eliminate it. We’ve been playing for a draw ever since.

Two years and more than 5 million dead worldwide. It’s not too soon to begin extracting lessons from this crisis. I’d start with this: The pandemic teaches that the Information Age is not especially conducive to good information. New technologies make it much easier to collect and distribute information. But assaying information — weighing it, analyzing it, separating the gold from the pyrite — still depends on old-fashioned human judgment. It takes time. It requires patience amid uncertainty.

While reading David von Drehle’s opinion piece, I was reminded of a recent post by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, comparing this moment in history to America in the middle and muddle of the Second World War.

Very few of us today have any living memory of World War II. For the vast majority of us it’s history, clear and bookended. It begins for the US in December 1941 and ends a few months shy of four years later. A grinding, long period – but it has a clear beginning and end. And we know when it ends. Once it’s over things not only go back to normal. After a very brief period of economic readjustment and inflation they actually get way better than normal.

But none of this was clear at the time. In 1942 it wasn’t clear how long the war in Europe or the Pacific would last, whether the US would win or what would happen afterwards. So in 1942 you’re not thinking, ‘Well, two or three more years of this and it’s done.’ You actually have no idea. You hope. But hope is not a plan.

This isn’t to say no one had any idea. Military planners had general plans and timelines. But as the military adage puts it, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Plans aren’t facts. Certainly at the level of individuals living their lives, separated families, rationing, nothing’s certain and the future is open ended. And not in a good way.

Jessica Glenza of The Guardian interviewed the head of the Vaccines and Biological Products Advisory Committee of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Arthur Monto.

He and other scientists watched as a vaccine against Covid-19 was developed faster and more effectively than any dared to hope. Then Monto watched in astonishment as tens of millions of Americans refused to take them.

Nevertheless, he added: “Those of us who are on the front lines here, in terms of development or evaluation, are so incredulous about people not wanting to get vaccinated.”

Perhaps the most frequent question people now ask Monto is whether people will need a Covid-19 vaccine “every six months”, especially in light of the recently discovered omicron variant. Pfizer recently announced that a third shot of its mRNA vaccine appears to protect as well against omicron as other variants.

“The question is: is this going to be like influenza” – against which an annual vaccine is recommended – “or is it going to be like measles?” – which requires only two doses for life-long protection. “That’s where many of us disagree.”

The aforementioned Arnold S. Monto, M.D.’s November 2021 essay in the New England Journal of Medicine is worth a read.

Readministration of influenza vaccine has become an annual event for much of the population, in response to both waning immunity and the appearance of variants, termed antigenic drift, necessitating updated vaccines. Even when there is no substantial drift, revaccination is recommended because of waning immunity. But antigenic drift is a constant issue and is monitored globally, with vaccine composition updated globally twice a year on the basis of recommendations from a World Health Organization consultation….Vaccine effectiveness against laboratory-confirmed symptomatic infection is never higher than 50 to 60%, and in some years it is much lower. Thus, the value of influenza vaccines, now given to as many as 70% of people in some age groups, lies not in eliminating outbreaks but in reducing them and preventing severe complications.

Though there may be similarities between SARS-CoV-2 and influenza, there are also meaningful differences. The most obvious difference is the efficacy of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, which is currently much higher than we can achieve with influenza vaccines. Whether that degree of efficacy will continue is one of the many open questions that can only be answered over time. It is clear, however, that revaccination will be necessary, for the same reasons that influenza revaccination is necessary: antigenic variation and waning immunity. Data on the frequency of reinfection with seasonal coronaviruses may not be relevant, but they suggest that protection is relatively short term even after natural infection.5 Revaccination frequency and consequences will need to be determined.

Let us hope that certain problems with the influenza vaccine — such as the failure of vaccination, in some years, to produce the desired increase in protection in previously vaccinated people — do not occur with the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. Other issues, such as the variant to be targeted by vaccines, will need to be addressed. The successful public–private collaboration in selecting influenza strains offers a model for dealing with such issues. SARS-CoV-2 vaccines will be used globally, and the strain or strains contained in future vaccines will need to be chosen globally, in consultation with the manufacturers.

Tom Hamburger, Jacqueline Alemany, Josh Dawsey, and Matt Zapotosky of The Washington Post interviewed Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection; they learned that the committee has begun discussions about a criminal referral of former president Donald Trump to DOJ.

[Thompson] said the president’s delayed response to the Capitol attack could be a factor in deciding whether to make a criminal referral, which is when Congress informs the Justice Department it believes a crime has been committed. It would be up to federal prosecutors to decide whether to pursue a charge.

“That dereliction of duty causes us real concern,” Thompson said. “And one of those concerns is that whether or not it was intentional, and whether or not that lack of attention for that longer period of time, would warrant a referral.”

A criminal referral against a former president would be historic and would ratchet up the political tensions that continue to swirl over the congressional inquiry into the worst attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812 as Trump considers running again for president.

Thompson said the committee is not deterred by criticisms from Trump and congressional Republicans and will seek to hold anyone to account for their role in what panel members say was an attack on democracy that has to be addressed.

Matthew Rosza of Salon presents a provocative comparison of the vice presidency of Kamala Harris to that of Richard Nixon.

The symbolic significance of a Black woman with multiethnic heritage presiding over a 50-50 Senate still largely comprised of white men is impossible to miss. Harris has literally tilted the balance of power toward the Democrats with her tie-breaking votes, and vice-presidential history suggests she could also do so in a more profound way. That’s where Richard Nixon comes in.

Yes, that Nixon. Long before he became infamous as the only president forced to resign in disgrace, Nixon was an unpopular, polarizing figure as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower. There are rough parallels to Harris’ situation: Eisenhower was widely regarded as a genial old guy without much of an ideological orientation, perhaps with a few screws loose. (It later turned out that Ike deliberately played up this image so his adversaries would underestimate him, something Biden’s foes should keep in mind.) In both cases, the president was seen as generally likable and the vice president as a controversial attack-dog type. Nixon even presided over an evenly-split Senate for part of 1954, although he never cast a tie-breaking vote.

But at least to this point in the Biden presidency, Harris has had virtually no opportunity to turn her role to political advantage, which was something Nixon excelled at. In Nixon’s memoir “Six Crises” (written after his two terms as vice president), we learn how he maximized what he could do with his office. Nixon was already associated in the popular mind with the infamous anti-Communist Joe McCarthy, mostly through his work uncovering government official Alger Hiss’ alleged role as a Soviet spy.

Let’s leave aside the superficial observation that both Nixon and Harris ascended to the vice presidency having not finishing a full term as senators representing California.

As Rosza notes, Nixon’s popularity was fueled generally when he was a political partisan and specifically by being confrontational and even prosecutorial-like, especially in the Alger Hiss case and in the “Kitchen Debate” with Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev.

Vice President Harris, on the other hand, has taken a lead in various efforts involving public international diplomacy in areas like Latin America and in Europe; particularly to be noted is her visit to France and her meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.

I will note that Harris’s political profile and popularity has always improved when she is at her most “prosecutorial.”

Think of all of the Twitter memes and GIFs that have come out of those Senate hearings and Harris’s questioning of AG Jeff Sessions (“you’re making me nervous”), or her questioning of SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh, or then-Attorney General William Barr.

Think of her confrontation with Biden over school busing during the Democratic primary; remember, her popularity shot up (with some demographics) after that; she also became a viable contender for the Democratic nomination for a short while.

Whether Madame Vice President Kamala Harris can be prosecutorial-like (at least sometimes) and popular in the office that she currently holds is a different matter. Perhaps being “prosecutorial-like” in that capacity remains something that only a straight white man like Nixon could get away with.

Amy Crawford of The Boston Globe writes that homeschooling rates have increased during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, My Reflection Matters grew from 300 to more than 900 members, numbers that are consistent with a broader trend. The latest US Census survey of households with school-aged children, published in March, found that the proportion who homeschooled rose from about 3.3 percent before the pandemic to 5.4 percent in the spring of 2020 and again to 11.1 percent by the fall of 2020. (The survey question clarified that respondents were not confusing homeschooling with virtual instruction through a traditional public or private school.) The increase was especially dramatic for Black families, among whom homeschooling jumped from 3.3 percent to 16.1 percent between spring and fall. Meanwhile, public school enrollment nationwide fell by 3 percent for the 2020-21 school year — the steepest decline since World War II — as some 1.5 million students left for homeschooling or private schools or simply dropped out.

Nationwide figures for the current school year are not yet available, but this month National Public Radio compiled data from 600 districts across the country and found that most recorded fall 2021 head counts even lower than last year’s. And while the census has yet to publish new data, homeschooling rates also seem to have stayed higher than they were before the pandemic. “It’s difficult to define the exact number of homeschoolers,” says Michael McShane, a researcher with the school choice advocacy group EdChoice, which found that 9 percent of a representative sample of American families planned to educate their children at home during the 2021-22 school year. “But by all measures it looks like the pandemic has caused a sharp increase.”

Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise. Pandemic-related school closures plunged families into chaos, and although nearly all US public schools reopened in person this fall, classes are still being canceled on short notice for reasons that include insufficient staff, student misbehavior, threats of violence, COVID outbreaks, and mental health respite. Once federal pandemic relief funds run out, the effect of falling enrollment will be felt in school budgets, likely leading to further disruptions. And should these trends prove durable, the consequences could be serious not only for our schools but for American democracy itself.

Jonathan Wolff of The New Statesman writes that functioning democracies need “a loyal opposition” that is frequently eschewed by authoritarians.

Whether we are explicitly aware of it or not, respecting the notion of a loyal opposition is the lifeblood of the democratic systems we cherish. In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1949), TS Eliot observes that “the survival of a parliamentary system requires a constant dining with the opposition”.

Eliot’s point may be more specific, emphasising the importance of encountering diverse points of view, and looking to forge compromise and consensus. Yet it builds on the same assumption: opposition is a normal part of parliamentary life in a democracy. As the political theorist Chantal Mouffe remarks in The Return of the Political (1993): “A pluralistic democratic order… is based on a distinction between ‘enemy’ and ‘adversary’. It requires that, within the context of the political community, the opponent should be considered not as an enemy to be destroyed, but as an adversary whose existence is legitimate and must be tolerated. We will fight against his ideas, but we will not question his right to defend them.”

Mouffe’s observation is apposite. Authoritarians want not just to win more votes than competing parties but to lay all opposition to waste. Those who opposed the Nazis and the Bolsheviks were not considered thoughtful adversaries who had come to a different analysis and had a legitimate ambition to govern, but enemies, traitors, saboteurs and wreckers, to be crushed: physically beaten on the streets, jailed, or ultimately executed for their audacity.

Finally today, Priya Singh writes for CNN that users of various social media apps like Snapchat and TikTok should make more of an effort to be “genuine” and authentic in their social media sharing.

We’ve built a culture that encourages sharing everything positive online with our followers, while offline we hide burdens alone instead of unloading them in the embrace of actual friends. Wouldn’t we lighten the load a little if only we felt comfortable sharing what we’re really feeling?

Students and young people feel the weight of it all. But graduating doesn’t make the burden go away. Everyone from regular people to Olympic athletes and Fortune 500 CEOs feel an unending pressure to pretend everything’s not just OK but is actually great. Certainly, it’s compounded by the pressure to measure oneself against the distorted images of peers on social media.

What would happen if we all just made a daily effort to share something genuine, even and perhaps especially if it makes us more vulnerable?

Today, there’s a constant drumbeat of criticism of social media. But I’m tempted to consider the flip side and the opportunity. Every movement and every experience being livestreamed, tweeted, TikTok’d and posted to Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook is, now more than ever, an opportunity to stop pretending and start being real — online and offline.

Just … eww!

This cure might be worst than the disease. I can only think of Kellyanne Conway’s daughter Claudia’s tikTok postings in this regard, though I never felt many “genuine” moments in those either.

Everyone have a great day!

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