Imagine that a new religion emerged on earth in the last year, universally adopted and vaguely compulsory. Everyone on earth was obliged to believe in it. The new religion imposed novel moral duties and conjured strange fears. You might imagine that it would give humanity an unprecedented unity. But there’s a catch. There are at least five denominations of this new religion and the borders between them are fuzzy. Adherents of each denomination disagree about the exact duties and dogmas of this new faith.
Old denominational differences, such as the ones we have in Christianity, are well settled, and the etiquette is established. For the most part, whole families — even almost entire nations and ethnic groups — have more or less settled into one or another, reducing day-to-day religious conflict.
But in the sudden-onset religion, all the denominational differences are matters of burning-hot heresy. And as with the emergence of Christian heresies, these differences of opinion are a threat to the whole social order. You wouldn’t want your kids contaminated by the heretics. But because all of this happened so suddenly, the denominational differences run through almost every public institution — even the ones dedicated exclusively to the new religion. The denominational splits affect almost every extended family, even dividing individual households.
You probably figured out this new “religion” is COVID-19. And it’s just like a new religion in that it is tearing up our settled patterns of life and dividing us about our own traditions, our ways of being with our friends and family. At least that’s how I see it now that the pain of a changed Thanksgiving is leading into the agony of a suddenly altered Christmas.
At some point, when I expressed my fatigue with restricted life under COVID, a friend told me to just live my life as if it didn’t exist. Even if I thought this was wise — and I don’t — it is impossible to live my life that way. I can’t just opt out of or renegotiate the terms with every business, institution, or personal relationship that is part of my life.
This week alone, a family member in another part of the county had an accident and died suddenly. There were COVID restrictions on his short stay in hospice, denying close loved ones the normal chance to say goodbye. National Review’s Christmas party, normally a time to be among friends and inebriated, was instead on Zoom and abbreviated. A cafeteria worker at my son’s school contracted the disease, and the response was to shut down for the rest of the year. Now all of the instruction my son needs — and he does benefit from it — is done over screens again. His presence in front of these screens must be managed by my wife and me, even as we tend to our jobs from home. Another child I know in the family must do speech therapy through face-shields, because that is what the state and the center mandate. As my most-faithful readers will know, a doorknob located in Danbury, Conn., tested positive and shrunk our Thanksgiving plans. A frozen turkey still sits in the freezer.
Every household in our family has different tolerances for risk. And that the endless proliferation of “facts” about COVID supports virtually any choice makes arguing about it useless or destructive. There is no way through it.
The domain of what we don’t know about the disease seems to grow, on a micro and macro scale. You could look at the numbers and say that New York governor Andrew Cuomo has done a worse job than Florida governor Ron DeSantis. And overall, I think DeSantis made the right call on long-term-care homes, and Cuomo initially made the wrong one. But what if you think climate and lifestyle are some of the main factors in the spread? That is, what if it’s just better to be in Miami than in New York? What if we simply don’t know enough to judge?
I’m tired of judging. I’m tired of the hypocrisy of politicians and public-health experts. I’m tired of learning how little they know or can know. I’m tired of the scapegoating and the tut-tutting by the Zoom class. And I’m tired of the attempt by the world to turn every sick person into either a blameworthy fool or a blameless victim.
The sheer endlessness of this is mind-numbing. Three weeks to bend the curve, then a hope for reopening in Easter. A false dawn in the summer, and now, what? The hope for vaccines? But we’re now told that not even the vaccines will eliminate the need for mask-wearing and restrictions.
This pandemic is easily the worst national disaster of my life. Worse than 9/11, with a policy response that is arguably worse than our endless war on terror.
At the beginning of this, we talked about it as “our long Lent.” Now it is Advent. Advent is a time of waiting for the hope of deliverance. Well, I’m waiting, Lord, and reduced to pleading: Deliver us.