Live long enough in a pandemic and you will see the entire narrative landscape shift, even flip, sometimes more than once.
As recently as a month ago, Americans of a certain cast of mind could have still looked to China—and indeed all of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania—with some plausible pandemic envy. Those early lockdowns in Wuhan were brutal, yes; some of the surveillance testing, contact tracing, and quarantine measures imposed in places like South Korea and Singapore were very restrictive, true; closed borders and reentry policies in Australia and New Zealand went further than those of any country in Europe or the Americas; and while the Sinovac vaccines weren’t as effective as those made by Moderna or Pfizer, the success of true “zero covid” policies through the region meant that in many places, shots got into arms without anything like a major covid surge ever having taken place.
All of that seemed like an unimaginable triumph. Now, after a brutal Omicron wave punishing its largely unvaccinated elderly, Hong Kong has a cumulative death toll approaching Canada’s. (In February, it was 25 times lower.) Omicron spikes elsewhere in the region—in South Korea, in Singapore— have proved less threatening, given higher rates of vaccination among the elderly. But panicked lockdowns imposed again in China suggest that the country’s leadership, at least, believes an enormous amount of pandemic vulnerability remains—enough to justify a total shutdown of Shenzhen, a city of almost 20 million and such a critical economic and manufacturing hub that American observers immediately started raising their expectations for inflation.
Narrative turnabouts are not new with Omicron. Some are familiar: The disease wasn’t spread through the air, then it was; masks weren’t worth it, early on, then became not just essential but badges of personal vigilance, then only useful if they were KN95s. Some narrative shifts were more obscure: Omicron was said to be “mild,” though it is roughly as severe as the original strain in immunologically nave populations. Others have been somewhat memory-holed, as when much of the public-health Establishment spent the fall of 2020 suggesting that herd immunity would be reached when 60 or 70 percent of the country was infected or vaccinated, a threshold we have now long since surpassed with nothing like herd immunity insight; or when it spent the summer of 2021 insisting that breakthrough cases were exceedingly rare and breakthrough deaths essentially nonexistent, when in fact probably a quarter of all American deaths since Delta have been among the vaccinated. Some reversals were technical, as when rapid tests were first considered imprecise, became indispensable during Omicron, then had their efficacy in preventing transmission called into question. Some had to do with policy: School closures were once part of a first-response wave of restrictions, but a growing understanding of the relatively low risk to kids and real costs of keeping them home has meant schools are now broadly viewed as among the most important places to remain open. And some had to do with personal behavior, as when many of the same people who spent 2020 yelling at Thanksgiving travelers and arguing that responsibility to protect others should dominate one’s personal behavior spent 2021 reasoning that vaccines had absolved us all of that responsibility. Many of those who once reacted in horror to “Let it rip” proponents began wondering if anything at all could have stopped the early spread in its tracks.
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