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Green Sash Wrap
Theater, both COVID and actual
COVID: Age of Omicron
This has been a fretful week in NYC, with the graph of COVID cases going vertical, a number of Broadway shows and restaurants closing due to breakthrough cases. Numerous people in my circle have announced that they are taking greater precautions—canceling parties, no longer eating indoors, etc. I know people who’ve decided not to see their grandchildren again.
I am not making similar choices, but unlike Freddie deBoer, I don’t think this is a simple case of elite status competition. People are making real sacrifices, sometimes because they are fearful (often for what I think are not great reasons, though certainly not always—some people have cancer, for example, or live with people who do) but often just because they are trying to do what they think is right for society as a whole. I think they are just wrong about how much good they are doing, individually and collectively, given the current contours of the pandemic.
I’ve written about this twice this week, once at The Week and once On Here, and rather than excerpt extensively from either, I encourage you to read both pieces. The first is about how much of what we’re doing is really COVID theater, inadequate to make any real difference to the progress of the pandemic while posing at least some real costs, and how maybe it’s time to be more vocal and aggressive in pushing back against this stuff. The second is about how there are things we should have done, collectively, but didn’t do, that would have made a material difference, to some degree to the progress of the pandemic but much more so to our ability to live functionally within it. The choice really isn’t between locking down and letting ‘er rip, or, rather, both of those are bad choices that leave out the many things we haven’t done that would be preferable.
I want to highlight one thing about the burgeoning Omicron wave, though, that might not be fully appreciated. The most certain risk of the Omicron wave isn’t a staggering increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths. That may yet come, but there are a bunch of reasons to be hopeful that it won’t be quite as bad as that, even if Omicron isn’t intrinsically milder than Delta, simply because of vaccinations and prior infections. America does not have an immunologically naive population anymore.
No, I suspect the most certain risk is actually a staggering number of breakthrough infections that take a huge percentage of the working population out of action for some period of time, resulting in major social and economic disruption. Hopefully that disruption will be very short-term, but I suspect we’ll all feel it.
The biggest risk is to the health care system, which is already short-staffed and tests regularly, so that even mild or asymptomatic infections won’t be missed. What happens if twenty percent of a hospital’s staff is sick with COVID at the same time? Even if they aren’t very sick, even if ninety percent of the infections are mild, they’re going to have trouble functioning—particularly if there is a surge of patients as well, as it is reasonable to assume there will be even if Omicron is milder on average.
But it goes beyond hospitals. Education, policing, transportation, manufacturing—all the “essential workers” who keep society from falling apart—they’re going to see unprecedented spikes in cases. How are these essential parts of society going to keep doing their jobs if a huge number of them are isolated because of COVID infections?
We can improve the situation by loosening up our protocols. Test-and-stay is a big improvement over asking anyone exposed to isolate (most people don’t have anywhere to isolate anyway), and is the only way schools are going to stay open (which they must). Shortening the window for quarantine after a positive test is also going to be necessary. I worry those measures won’t be enough, though, not in really crucial occupations. And we don’t really have the testing infrastructure to support those protocols anyway. So what will actually happen, I suspect, is a relaxation of testing protocols for anyone non-symptomatic, just like back at the beginning of the pandemic. A huge percentage of cases are not going to be caught at all. We’ll get a sense of the real picture by looking at the health care sector, which as a matter of core mission cannot fail to identify staff who have a contagious disease, or by looking at wastewater data. But in terms of keeping actually infected people out of general circulation, I expect massive slippage.
Which is part of why I find much of COVID theater increasingly absurd. If you’re taking special precautions to protect yourself, or someone in your life who is especially vulnerable, I completely understand—and I want to be supportive. If you’re caring for a partner with cancer and therefore you don’t want to see anyone outside that bubble indoors, or if you want me to get tested before we get together, I get it, and am happy to help. Society as a whole, though, is simply not capable of bubbling in that way, which means you shouldn’t kid yourself that you’re doing your part to end the pandemic by being extra cautious. You aren’t really. Case-wise, there’s a tsunami coming, and none of our prior fortifications are going to materially slow it down. We need to figure out how to keep it from swamping us in ways that don’t even have anything to do with the direct harm of COVID itself.
Ooh, the Germans!
My other piece On Here this week was about how Germany needs to start behaving like a Great Power again—either as part of a stronger, more functional and more united Europe, or on its own—if it wants to actually be able to have balanced and healthy relationships with other Great Powers like Russia.
To have a more constructive relationship with Russia . . . Germany needs not only to demonstrate but to substantiate its independence from them, but also from America. Germany’s dependence on Russia is largely about energy, so that means taking both decarbonization and energy independence much more seriously, investing heavily in wind and other renewable energy sources that work in a German context, but also reversing the Merkel government’s decision to denuclearize. The Nordstream pipeline is the main focus of these concerns, but it’s a symptom of a deeper problem, which is a lack of concern with the national security implications of dependence on one dominant energy supplier. Germany’s dependence on America, meanwhile, is primarily military. A greater financial investment in defense is vital if Germany is going to be taken seriously, but so is practicing foreign policy as if Germany had to make good on the commitments that it makes or advocates for. To that end, it would probably be helpful if Germany firmly stated its opposition to further NATO expansion, and if it began seriously exploring the prospects of coordination with major NATO allies like France and Poland, as well as with non-NATO powers like Sweden, outside of NATO.
I was jumping off from this piece by my colleague Sam Goldman at The Week, but since then Russia has made it even clearer how little interest they have in security dialogue with the Europeans. On Twitter, the subsequent debate was about whether this was a sign of Europe’s weakness and irrelevancy (only America matters) or whether it’s a sign of American dovishness (Russia would get a better deal from America). But as Damir Marusic pointed out, Europeans don’t really want America to be either hawkish or dovish, because both pose real risks for them:
This, though, is precisely what weakness looks like. It’s impossible for America to perfectly represent German or European interests. If we lean more hawkish, that will raise legitimate worries about the costs of that approach; if we lean more dovish, that will raise the opposite worries. What they need to do is own the dilemma themselves, which requires having the capacity to tackle it.
Until then, this Simpson’s bit will still be funny:
My latest piece at Modern Age can be read on line now. It’s a write-up of two quite different works of art: the first, The Green Knight, a film by David Lowery, and the second Pass Over, a play by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu. What unites them is that they are new reworkings of classic works of art: the first, of the medieval tale of Sir Gawain, and the second, of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (and, in the background, the biblical story of the exodus).
David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a wonderful movie, but it shouldn’t be thought of as an adaptation of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In saying that I am not criticizing it: it’s a mistake to expect a movie that claims to be an adaptation of a novel or some other kind of written text to actually be an adaptation. It almost never is; it’s often better to think of film adaptations as riffs on the originals. But Lowery’s The Green Knight is not a riff on the poem so much as a photographic negative of it.
Gosh that’s good. I so wish I’d written that.
Jacobs has a wonderful series of posts (eight in total: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) from several years ago about the original poem, which regretfully I did not discover until after I had written my own piece about the film. From the perspective of personal self-aggrandizement, I ought to recommend you read them in the same sequence—that is to say, please read my piece first! But to optimize your own edification, I suggest you read the poem, then Jacobs’s series of posts, then see the film, then read my commentary on the film, then read his commentary on the film, and then . . . take a nap.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a similarly edifying piece to bounce my thoughts about Pass Over off of, so you’ll just have to read me.