One Saturday morning last September I woke up in an AirBNB in Helsinki.
My three school-friends were snoring in the other bedrooms. It was the first day of a weekend trip we’d arranged to see each other, and our first such outing since the pandemic. I turned on my phone and it buzzed; a photo message, without text.
By that point, I had avoided Covid for two and a half years, ducking from near-miss to near-miss in a grinding, low-level state of panic. The emergence of the virus had reactivated in me long-held health anxieties, and I had been a pragmatic Covid maximalist. I didn't lock myself in a bunker; I didn't crusade for the world to mask up. But I followed the rules, wore N95's indoors with anyone who wasn't family, and changed my habits to avoid the virus wherever possible. I was the guy at the group dinner who asked for the outside table under the awning in the rain.
But the day before, I decided to try a new mindset, as an experiment. I flew on a full plane into Finland as the only person with a mask, then ditched it in the airport. And after testing negative for Covid and meeting up with my schoolfriends, I partied for a night like it was 2019.
And it was good. Very good. How I had missed it.
And yet now I was staring at an image of a positive Covid test on my phone. The sender: my wife, who I'd been with until yesterday. Fuck.
I called her. The kids had it too. She was feeling OK, and took it with good humour. “Whatever happens, happens.” I did a test myself: even more positive than hers. I'd obviously caught it at home.
I stood up. I was alright; maybe a little feverish, dizzy. I strapped on two N95s, ambled sheepishly to the pharmacy down the street, and splurged on anti-Covid gear: vitamins, decongestants, melatonin for sleep. I even acquired a blood oximeter. It felt good just to do something.
Back in the apartment, my friends were up. They weren't bothered that I had the virus; their main concern was that I would no longer be able to take part in our trip. I shut the door of my room behind me, removed my masks, and laid my new purchases out on the table, reminded of the scene from Trainspotting where Renton methodically prepares his bedsit to come off heroin. And buckled in. OK motherfucker. Let’s do this.
My Covid experience ended up being, thankfully, a mild affair. After a few weeks, once my sense of smell returned, I measured my antibodies and they were crazy high. My family also recovered fast, and got on with life, catching other viruses and illnesses. (At Xmas, I contracted a flu that made Covid seem like a stroll in the Jardin de Luxembourg.)
That terrible thing that could happen, had happened. And we'd been fine. Maybe we got lucky. But (almost) everyone I know who had Covid in 2022 was a similar level of fine. And the statistics painted a similar picture.
So I quickly caught up to what everyone around me was doing. I stopped following the case count, relaxed the restrictions, and breathed. And six months on, my habits haven't changed. I'll gladly mask in a hospital or around vulnerable people. But my days of interacting indoors from behind an N95 are over.
The Covid pandemic was a mass-pain event.
Some of that pain was inflicted by the virus, doing what viruses do. Some of it by our governments' responses to the virus. And some of it, we inflicted on each other.
Almost certainly, the virus will no longer continue to create the havoc it once did. Its power is waning; it's becoming endemic and we're well armed against it and we're living with it. We've sort of arrived, and there's not much at the individual level that we can do.
What we have more control over, though, is how we react to others. The pandemic further polarised an already-polarised world, pitting 'Covidians' against 'Covidiots'. Today, there's a dwindling but influential group still advocating for extreme caution, setting up isolated communities for their families, and pushing for new mask mandates. It's easy to sneer at them as purveyors of Permanent Midnight; to blast these folk for refusing to get with the times and move on.
But it's not that simple. Humanity has taken a hit to its mental health, and I know too well that living in fear of Covid is hard. I understand where the Covid-cautious are coming from, even if I disagree with their tactics. And as long as they don't judge me for my choices, I'll reciprocate.
Eyes on the prize
On the establishment's response to the virus, though, I think we're giving them a huge pass.
Pick your screw-up: the brutal, long-term lockdowns; coercing people to take vaccines in richer countries while barring poorer countries from getting them; ignoring the benefits of natural immunity; villifying (and suppressing) debate on critical issues like the origin of the virus; and many others. The pandemic exposed the dark underbelly of how society works: from fragile supply chains to inadequate decision-making to the ethos of trying to control everything no matter the cost.
It's simple: our institutions failed us. We got through it, but not without making it all worse. And we emerged from the pandemic with our trust in those institutions, rightly, shattered.
In recent months, commentators have called for a pandemic amnesty; to forgive the mistakes and move forward. There will be a time for that, but today it doesn't really work as a response to the wave of human suffering that wasn't the virus' doing. We need accountability from our institutions; to see consequences for these errors, apologies, resignations. And recommendations to ensure this can't happen again.
And yet – today, to demand accountability is to hold a fringe position. It's anecdotal, but I see no activist energy left for this kind of action.
I can understand why. Funding and kudos don't flow to those who work on yesterday's news. And since the pandemic was a mass-pain event, we don't want to go back there.
We shouldn't let them get away with it.
Update 19/06/23: The writer Paul Kingsnorth has a three-part essay series that assesses Covid and the establishment reaction much better than I ever could. It's beautifully written and well argued. Start here.