We need to get back to normal. Now.

To the Editor:
When I was 10, I learned that my mom had an older sister who’d died of scarlet fever just before her 10th birthday. The girl’s name was Martha. My mom and her two living sisters remembered their childhood joyfully — they grew up near Indian Ladder Farms — so this revelation came as a surprise. Our family’s self-narrative was so happy and my grandparents were the two kindest people I knew. I couldn’t imagine them suffering the loss of a child.

I’m now the father of a 10-year-old girl, and I’ve been thinking about Martha during this recent COVID-19 wave. Like you, I suspect, I grew up at a time when disease was largely contained in North America. Dying of scarlet fever was unimaginable. When covid swept through our community in early 2020, it felt like a tsunami was washing away a deep-rooted story about progress. These sorts of crises happened in the past, not in the present. Admittedly, the arrival of the mRNA vaccine steadied everything. Yet here we are again in early 2022, picking up the pieces from COVID.

How do we live together in a time like ours? The Enterprise’s opinion pages have been filled with lamentations recently, and I think we’re all asking ourselves some version of this question. If recent letters reflect popular sentiment, some of us evidently believe that COVID persists because anti-vax conservatives put their rights before public health, whereas others think woke liberals are using the virus to advance social reform.

Both sides imply that the pandemic will end when everyone believes like them, and that’s a natural response, since so many national media outlets accentuate conflict between in-groups and out-groups. Plus, we’re adjusting to this virus while confronting serious changes to our planet and our politics. We’re awash with problems we can’t control.

Martha is an interesting muse in this context. She lived at a less partisan time when most Americans did not believe they were invulnerable to disease and she died because her parents couldn’t access medicine that is commonplace now.

What does her memory mean? I’ve been toying with this question this past month, and I’m drawn toward two kinds of answers.

First, rejecting an mRNA vaccine for political reasons is even more foolish when you consider the choice from someone like Martha’s perspective.

Second, perhaps we should stop talking so fearfully about this virus. My grandparents lived through hard times but they did not live fearfully. They created a joyous childhood for my mom. As parents, they understood that kids can’t grow up afraid.

This past week, I read a report from researchers at Oxford University, suggesting that most of us face a less than 1-percent chance of serious hospitalization or death from COVID. In Great Britain, middle-aged people without major health problems have a .0005-percent chance of dying and a .0066-percent chance of hospitalization, percentages that are a little higher among the elderly and significantly lower for kids.

These percentages are based on British patients, but they are relevant elsewhere. People living in Albany County have a .0088-percent chance of dying from COVID. That percentage is surprisingly consistent at the state and national levels, despite the diversity of local responses to the Omicron variant.

Regardless of where you plant your feet geographically in the United States, the risk of serious hospitalization or death from COVID appears to be less than 1 percent. We are two years into this pandemic, and most of us are far more likely to get a serious case of the flu than a serious case of COVID.

My point is not that newspapers lie. COVID is real. COVID can be scary. But COVID is not a statistically significant threat in the context of the other threats we encounter regularly. If communities rest upon shared generalizations, this one seems important even if it isn’t true for every person all the time.

For those of us who work outside government, what might this mean? Well, personally, I’m going to show more empathy toward parents who feel that masks should be optional in schools. Vaccinated teachers have no reason to fear unmasked children — and unvaccinated teachers have no excuse.

I’m also going to support school administrators who are implementing test-to-stay programs. In fact, I’m going to quietly pine for workarounds to quarantine policies because I think kids are missing too much school. That loss of instruction is fueling a crisis that supersedes COVID.

And the next time a friend suggests that public-safety measures are alleviating the problems that confront hospitals, I’m going to politely ask for evidence. At this point in the pandemic, I think most hospitals can solve their problems with reform. If they employed more nurses — and paid nurses better — they’d experience less duress, patients would get better care, and we wouldn’t have to talk about bending any more curves.

Most importantly, I’m going to start rejecting panaceas. Claiming we can only move ahead when COVID is “defeated” doesn’t make sense to me. The United States Supreme Court has placed limits on vaccine mandates, so 100-percent vaccination is impossible, and herd immunity is a theoretical abstraction invented by epidemiologists.

We have no reason to believe that COVID-19 will go away soon. More likely, there will be more variants and more rounds of infection. However, we probably won’t die. In fact, our risk is miniscule if we have an mRNA vaccine. Perhaps the time has come to stop talking about “defeating” COVID-19 — and start discussing how to live together with a little more risk.

I think the past has something to contribute to this latter conversation. Martha died because she couldn’t access our medicine and her parents loved unconditionally because they saw life as transient. Our community might have been “weaker” in the mid-20th Century, but that weakness bred a humble kind of courage.

The result was a community that saw normalcy not as a luxury for good times but as a necessity in all times. If history offers lessons, this one is clear: We need to get back to normal. Now.

Ryan Irwin


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