The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Omicron isn’t just another wave. It’s a deluge crushing caregivers.

We are buckling under the cumulative strain of two years in the pandemic

An emergency room nurse in Toronto. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)
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It honestly surprised me when Joseph Speyer started crying.

I was interviewing the Washington, D.C., father of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old over Zoom for a story about omicron and children too young to be vaccinated. Though he and his wife were professionals, it was a strain to come up with the extra $1,000 to hire backup care when the younger child’s day care was closed for 10 days in December because of a covid-19 case — and then to do it all over again in January. But they had inflexible jobs, so they had little choice.

Speaking to me from his bathroom, where he could find a bit of peace in the house, he started out sounding angry. He directed his frustrations at what he considered poor guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and unthinking rigidity at the day care. Then suddenly, his voice broke. The pandemic had spanned his son’s entire life, and each day brought new uncertainties.

“It’s the changing routine we’ve had to constantly, you know, just force them into. New day. Every day. Totally different,” he said through tears. “It’ll probably be lost in the river of stuff that they’ve had to deal with over the past couple of years.”

We’re used to stress in the ER. But omicron has made our jobs impossible.

Many people have cried in my Zoom room since March 2020, as I’ve been reporting for NPR and for my book about children and covid. Parents. Teachers. Children and teenagers. But the emotions seem even more raw now than they were in the early days of the pandemic, particularly for caregivers, paid and unpaid. This isn’t just because of the omicron wave. It’s the last two years — the cumulative weight of it, the “river of stuff” that father was talking about. The weight is being disproportionately carried by parents and those who care for a living — child-care workers, elder-care workers, health-care workers, teachers.

On one hand, we have vaccines. They keep tens of millions safe from severe illness and death. They ease my mind powerfully when I think about my own risk from covid-19 and my immunocompromised mother’s. But pandemics are social phenomena, and vaccination hasn’t yet managed to significantly alter this one’s dynamics.

Though some of the fear and uncertainty of the early months has abated as we grew to know our enemy, many of the support systems — and supportive attitudes — that took hold in that acute phase have petered out. The adrenaline has waned, replaced by monotony, exhaustion, burnout. Both parents and professional caregivers have been left behind as the public conversation has shifted from keeping everyone safe to propping up the economy and getting the country back on its feet.

This is a dangerous time in the pandemic for people like me. Don’t forget us.

Deaths in the United States are once again topping 2,000 souls per day. Cancer surgeries are being postponed. Parking garages are turned into overflow emergency rooms. Managers are taking front-line shifts at nursing homes. Some schools have closed because of a lack of staff. Grocery shelves sit unstocked as workers stay home due to illness, quarantines and caregiver responsibilities.

In the first few months of this, back in 2020, people stood on sidewalks applauding essential workers. Fancy restaurants sent free meals to hospitals. TV producer Shonda Rhimes quipped on Twitter in March 2020: “Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.” Now, headlines are more likely to be about disputes about school safety measures and threats directed at health-care providers.

The federal government sent all households stimulus checks, and then sent families with children even more money through the reimagined child tax credit. Some working mothers told me the early pandemic, as scary and hard as it was, was also the only paid time they had ever had at home with their children.

My red state is already pretending covid is gone. Now here comes omicron.

Today, the stimulus checks are done. The child tax credit has expired. Federal incentives for employer-based paid leave are gone. President Biden’s Build Back Better plan and its “care is infrastructure” agenda are stalled in Congress, like a wagon train full of supplies snowed in just over the mountain pass.

And instead of feeling a renewed sense of solidarity in this time of scarcity, many people seem to have turned on each other. Mayors are lecturing teachers who don’t feel safe coming to work. Self-described progressives are attacking working mothers who want to send their children to school. Nurses face belligerent patients who don’t believe in the disease that’s killing them.

Alena Zachery-Ross, the superintendent in Ypsilanti, Mich., told me her teachers sometimes spend the entire weekend in bed, exhausted, only to drag themselves out Monday morning. She said this past fall was the toughest semester of the pandemic — not full-time remote learning in 2020, not the hybrid period in spring 2021 when some teaching was in person and some was remote, but under the pressure today to stay fully open as cases rise and janitors, substitutes and bus drivers quit.

A single mother I know became sick with covid-19 recently and gave it to her young daughter, because she couldn’t effectively isolate from her. Her employer, a private school that charges $55,000 a year in tuition, docked her pay for the two weeks they were quarantined because her sick leave was used up. Federal incentives to offer employees paid leave have expired.

And what really turns the knife? At the same moment that parents, teachers and caregivers are saying they are more exhausted than they have ever been, that they’re out of reserves and out of options, many are also surrounded by messages — from business and political leaders, but also from blue-state, fully vaccinated people in the general public — that Americans are done with the pandemic and the country needs to get back to work.

“Record job creation. Record unemployment declines. Record increases in the people in the labor force,” Biden crowed earlier this month. “I would argue the Biden economic plan is working, and it’s getting America back to work, back on its feet.”

But if you have a child under 5 or a partner with kidney disease, if you depend on public schools or day care or if you work in a classroom or an emergency room, that message lands as manically, absurdly cruel and clueless.

The pandemic has risen and fallen in waves, but the stresses on caregivers have been cumulative, leading teachers to retire and nurses to leave the profession. Those who are left, it feels, have barely had a few moments — weeks, here and there — to uncoil, relax and even start the process of recovery.

Caregivers, paid and unpaid, are not back on their feet. They are on their knees.

And where the most vulnerable of us stand, that’s where the country really stands. Because the economy exists to sustain human life and thriving, not the other way around. In the meantime, caregivers do what they have to do: They keep going.

“My mantra is, it’s got to get better,” Speyer told me. “This can’t go on forever.”