How Will the Pandemic End? Not with a bang, but a whimper.

How will the COVID-19 pandemic end? It won’t. Those who understand these things say it is here to stay, a full time resident of our daily lives we will have to learn to live and die with. There will be a vaccine in due time. History suggests that, rushed as its development is, it will have a rocky start with a few failures, unexpected side effects, and inequitable distribution. There will also be more effective treatments in due time. History suggests they too are likely to first go to the most privileged and least vulnerable. In the meantime, COVID-19 is something we’ll need to get used to.

T.S. Eliot’s poem “Hollow Men” ends with the familiar refrain about how the world will end, “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” In a sense, that’s how the pandemic will end. Not with the bang of vaccines and treatment, but with whimpering resignation that we might as well get on with as much life as we can. There are signs of it now. The deadly virus against whom we have no current defense has been here for several months. We’re getting used to it. Infection, recovery and death rates seem to be settling into predictable patterns, including the predictably greater impact on the urban poor, blacks and hispanics.

Unpredictability creates uncertainty which creates fear. Predictability creates an uneasy contentment with the way things are, even when they are deadly or unjust. People will get sick, people will die, that’s the way it is. Get used to it. It’s what societies tend to do, albeit in a variety of ways.

The giddy, hedonistic reveling of bar patrons in Wisconsin and diner patrons in Colorado is one way to whimper toward an end. It’s no different than similar behavior during the waves of “Black Death” that spread across Asia and Europe during the Middle Ages. Others angrily protest about government imposed limitations on their “rights” to do whatever they want to do without regard for the welfare of others. That too is an old, old response. They’re the ones who make the front pages and evening news broadcasts. More common are gaggles of children playing together where and when they can, neighbors and friends visiting each other with a little less caution, commerce flowing quietly under restriction’s radar, and professional services cautiously seeing clients. There’s nothing dramatic about it, no sudden moves, no angry protests or concupiscent behavior. It’s just ordinary people doing what they can to return to ordinary ways of living.

There will be a cost. More will get sick and more will die than otherwise would. There may be benefits. Perhaps, at least for a time, we will become a more humane society, a bit kinder to one another, a bit less ready to objectify the other as an enemy, a bit more willing to address entrenched issues of injustice. I have some hope that right wing, anti government forces will at long last be exposed for the frauds they are, and held accountable at the ballot box for the harm they’ve done to the nation.

When the day come that we have one or more effective vaccines and treatments, I hope they will be distributed broadly from the bottom up at a cost to be equitably shared among us all through general taxation. It could happen. As one who lives closer to the top of the economic pyramid than the bottom, it will be hard to wait my turn, and I’ll no doubt complain about it.

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