The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America slouches into a new pandemic year

People visit the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York on Dec. 28. (Bryan Anselm for The Washington Post)

We’ve been at it for 21 months. Rather, it’s been at us. Is this Wave No. 4 or 5? Doesn’t matter. Everyone seems to have it. Baby, it’s covid outside.

Over the past two weeks, the text messages have been rolling in like a perverse countdown to 2022.


Bad news.

Drumroll please . . .

Omicron. The variant is new, but the coronavirus is no longer novel. It’s serial. More than 819,000 Americans are dead, but owing to vaccines — and an attitude of partial surrender — we now have the luxury of half measures. Some schools are closed but not all. Some Broadway shows are closing but not all. Many flights are canceled but not all. New Hampshire has it worse than Kentucky, but just wait. We’re surfing into January on waves of delta and omicron, toward the terminus of the Greek alphabet and the beginning of Year 3 of the pandemic. We’re deep into the Wikipedia entry for Lexapro as we queue for hours, in the cold, for a swab.

Is deja vu a symptom? When are we?

“This is not March 2020,” President Biden reassured us from the White House on Dec. 21, as a Royal Caribbean cruise returned to Miami with dozens of coronavirus cases.

The virus is adapting and so are we, becoming variants of our previous selves. Panic and bewilderment melt into fatalism. In the context of the pandemic, things are somehow both worse and never better. Get boosted, live your life, get the virus. Feel crappy, feel grateful, feel everything, feel nothing.

“I felt run-down from a long flying day.”

Two Saturdays ago, Jessica Tierney, a climate scientist, arrived home in Tucson, after attending a conference in New Orleans.

“My flight had been delayed for six hours. I lost my luggage. I tested myself with a rapid test when I got home. And it was negative. I thought: Maybe I’m just run-down.”

Two days later Tierney tested positive, becoming one of at least 91 fully vaccinated attendees of the conference to contract the coronavirus.

The curve on the country’s caseload graph was going vertical, sending waves of people horizontal. In New York, the number of children hospitalized with covid quintupled from Dec. 5 to 19. From Dec. 23 to 26, around 1 out of every 100 D.C. residents tested positive. This week the seven-day average of new daily U.S. cases hit 253,245, a record high.

At the conference in New Orleans, before she got sick, Tierney presented work on an extreme global warming event called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. It happened around 56 million years ago, when volcanoes went nuts, but it informs what’s happening today: rapid change that’s never happened before in human history.

“The way I think about the pandemic and climate change — in some ways, it’s the same: I never thought I would see this in my lifetime,” Tierney says. “To take a geologist’s point of view, I could zoom out and look at it from the perspective of someone in the future: This is one of those times of transition, of crisis, of change.”

On Dec. 17, actor Christine Dwyer learned via Instagram that she was out of a job: The “Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City Music Hall in New York was canceled “due to increasing challenges from the pandemic.” Dwyer’s profession is built on challenges. An actor knows that a job is rare and fleeting.

“But we’ve spent the last two years with this running through our heads: ‘Have I already done my last performance?’ ” says Dwyer, whose last gig before the pandemic was the Broadway tour of “Waitress.” “Was ‘Waitress’ the last show I’ll ever be in? Then I get to do this show and to have it ripped away — it floods back all those feelings of the last two years, of uncertainty and sadness and anger. It’s happening all over again. Now I’m saying, ‘Maybe Radio City is the last time I’ll perform in New York.’ ”

Our problems are both chronic and urgent, visible and invisible, titanic and microscopic. To some of the obvious ones, add this: In November the United States was added to a list of “backsliding democracies” by a Swedish institute.

“The United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself,” reported the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, citing the violence of Jan. 6, disinformation about election integrity and the erosion of voting rights.

A vast swath of unvaccinated Americans prefer ideological purity to their own health and safety and that of the people around them; about 1 in 5 Americans remains vaccine-resistant, according to Gallup. These are exponential times, and we are a logarithmic people. Germs outpace behavior. Mandates clash with advisories. Tell us what to do, but don’t make us do anything!

Coronavirus is a test that no one knows how to pass (from 2020)

“For political scientists it’s weird because we think people naturally want to preserve their welfare. And are rational actors,” says Ruth Bloch Rubin, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago who studies Congress, political parties and American political development. The political resistance to masks and vaccines, she says, is “testing that belief.”

As for the testing of U.S. democracy: “The Chicken Littles of the world make it difficult to know when you’re experiencing significant institutional rot,” Rubin says. “Maybe we’re living on that precipice in history. I think we’re in a time where it’s hard to know.”

Easier to know: the precipice on which parents of young children have been living. Rubin, nine months pregnant, has a 2-year-old.

Before delta and omicron, she’d found her balance on the new terrain of risk management. “Many of us figured out what our decision rules were, so we could stop thinking about everything we did: ‘We do this and this, but not this and this,’ ” she says. “And you can go about your life and you don’t have to process everything.”

The arrival of the more-transmissible variants, and the shifting guidance on how responsible citizens should behave, has disrupted that hard-earned sense of stability. “I’m sympathetic to people who are anxious messes or, at this point, nihilist,” says Rubin. “Every time I come to an equilibrium, it gets upset, and how do I cope with that?”

“Everyone’s exhausted,” says psychologist Alfiee M. Breland-Noble, who sees “vicarious trauma” in her patients, students and colleagues. “It’s the compounding effect of everyone’s going through their own struggles, yet you’re witnessing so many people around you struggle as well — with their health, with the fear of losing a loved one, with actually losing a loved one, and the vitriolic rhetoric around it all.”

Three Saturdays ago, William Moss was on the phone with his daughter around 1:20 a.m., as an unprecedented stampede of December tornadoes barreled through Kentucky. One tornado was headed for her house in Bowling Green, but Moss had to rush to his hospital nearby, to tend to the crush injuries and puncture wounds of his neighbors.

“Fatigue. That’s the word right now,” says Moss, director of emergency services for the Medical Center at Bowling Green. “Fatigue from the whole process, and figuring out what may be coming.” This year Moss has seen more late-stage cancers after months of deferred screenings, more anxiety and depression blooming from unattended emotional traumas. Delta swamped Kentucky in September; Moss expects omicron in January. Last week he gathered his staff around the front desk of the ER to mark one year since a colleague died of covid. Past, present, future: all collapsing in a moment. Moss propped up morale with a reminder.

“No matter how bad things are, keep your head,” Moss told his staff. “We get to go home. A lot of people we see here don’t get to go home.”

Yes, we may be awash in direct and vicarious trauma, but at least we’re talking about mental health in a more thorough and public way, says Breland-Noble.

“The pandemic has been especially devastating for communities of color,” Breland-Noble says. “But for the first time in my life I’m seeing so many Black experts, scientists and physicians talking about these disparities on TV.”

“One of the things that gets me through these dark years is science, right?” says Tierney, the scientist who got the coronavirus after a climate conference. “Because it’s the science that gave us these vaccines. Science is the reason why I’m not too sick right now, and I’m so thankful and astounded, actually, that the medical community was able to do that so quickly and save so many lives. And likewise with climate science, I’m astounded by the ability of my colleagues to diagnose how climate is changing and to improve our predictions of the future, hopefully providing governments what they need to make the right decisions.”

Tierney pauses.

“Science,” she says, “makes me hopeful.”

Dwyer, the actor, got a bit of good news after the Radio City show closed: “Wicked” wanted her back, after five years, as a standby performer for the lead role. She spent Christmas Eve relearning the part. She tested positive for the coronavirus on Christmas Day. Another reversal. Another equilibrium upset. She felt angry, grateful, sad — but not sick. It was deja vu, with one important difference.

“I’m not afraid like I was this time two years ago,” she wrote on Instagram. “I know I’m going to be okay.”