In one of the interminable series of solitary, socially distanced London walks I took in the strange and muffled spring of 2020, I overheard a woman speaking on her phone of her plans for “after Covid.” Talking to strangers in those days was even more taboo than usual in London, but I thought silently to myself that this poor woman was deluded, that there would be no “after Covid.” The virus was here to stay; it would never, as Boris Johnson had promised not long before, be “sent packing.” Sure enough, Covid has indeed been added for all time to the list of ills that flesh is heir to, and the best that we can hope for is that improved vaccines and therapeutics, and—above all—our now Covid-primed immune systems will render it but a minor threat to health and life in the future.
But my prediction that there would be no “after Covid” could have been read otherwise. For Covid has always been two things. It is a once-novel coronavirus that has made its predictable journey from pandemic to endemic status. But it is also the unprecedented state of exception that humans created in response to that virus: the planetary epidemic of lockdowns, social distancing, contact-tracing, masks, and vaccinations enforced by soft and hard power. Perhaps the stranger on my walk was contemplating primarily the end of that regime as the time “after Covid.” Certainly, that regime’s flourishing is now a common meaning of the word “Covid” in current speech. To say, for instance, that one had a baby “during Covid” is to indicate in short form that the birth took place when lockdowns dominated our lives: we all know what horrors of social isolation and medical cruelty this may imply.
This raises the question of whether there will ever be an “after Covid” for this second understanding of the phrase. Will we ever revert to the world as it looked before 2020, leaving behind all the extraordinary measures and mindsets of Covid times, as a dismal but increasingly distant memory? In a sense, the answer is, again, no: every historical event irrevocably alters the future’s course. “Had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter,” as Pascal famously quipped, “the whole face of the world would have changed.” The Covid state of emergency’s harms to physical and mental health, education, economies, and political culture will leave lasting scars, however well we patch up the wounds. Those who lost loved ones to the disease Covid will carry their grief to the grave. But so will those from whom the Covid regime tore away their own sanity and their children’s, their parents’ last words or funerals, their jobs, or even the food on their tables.
So, in this sense, there will no more be a time after Covid than there is, say, a time after parenthood. But what of the Covid regime itself? Is it dying or dead? Is the regime’s delusional war on Covid over, or has it only made a temporary truce? Pandemics end, as Gina Kolata wrote when this one had barely begun, as soon as people decide they’re over. Have we reached that decision yet?
From the quiet of the London exurbs, where I now live, it’s easy to conclude that the war is indeed over: apart from the occasional masked passer-by and unused hand sanitizer station, the regime’s symbols have vanished from view. Daily life and conversation have moved on, and the infection or re-infection of a friend is greeted calmly. But I need only slightly expand my field of vision to see that the regime has life in it yet. For instance, I refuse to wear a mask at the doctor’s because I know that masks don’t stop virus transmission, while they impede patient–doctor communication. As a result, no GP in my hometown will register me. Meantime, of my two siblings, one must be vaccinated to attend his office, while the other must take several lateral flow tests each week for her work as a mental-health caregiver. And, in the wider world, rumors of the war on Covid rumble on: Los Angeles flirted with re-mandating indoor masking, including for schoolchildren, before dropping the idea; 1,000 U.S. universities will mandate vaccinations for next year’s students; universal masking soldiers on in Japan; Germany is granting its regions powers to extend restrictions indefinitely; ; Australians have been asked to work from home; “long Covid” fears are stoked by massive grants for researching this doubtful diagnosis for a mix of post-viral sequelae and lockdown-induced distress; pharmaceutical companies’ promises of variant-adjusted vaccines raise the spectre of new mandates.
Those who implement, support, and comply with such policies would of course generally explain that they are merely following the science, adjusting their Covid response to the disease’s own ebb and flow. But if we are to retain any commitment at all to science as a domain where observable truth can be established, this is an empty explanation of why a number of the measures invented in 2020–21 stumble on like zombies. The measures’ aims were variously presented as slowing the spread of Covid, suppressing Covid altogether, and building global herd immunity to Covid through universal vaccination. All these projects have foundered. We now know empirically what reasonable observers predicted inductively: once Covid has a toehold, non-pharmaceutical interventions do vast harm and have little or no effect on the speed at which it spreads; suppressing the virus is impossible; and we do not know how to make vaccines that will prevent infection. So why are governments and institutions persisting with measures that don’t work, fighting further battles in a war already lost?
The answer is that the Covid response was never so much a scientific exercise as it was a political, and even spiritual, project. The response has been promoted by many scientists, who no doubt believe their own theories and analyses, and many of the leaders, pundits, and citizens who have followed their guidance have, in turn, done so in the belief that they were acting scientifically. But the very acceptance of the notion that a certain scientific hypothesis can legitimate the shutdown of society, the intrusion of government on the minutiae of daily life, and the mandating of medical procedures implies a specific vision of the nature of legitimate political authority and of the best paths to human flourishing. The Covid response could not have been contemplated, still less implemented, without the foundational assumption that the imperatives of disease control set the proper limits to personal and political freedom. That assumption is not within the domain of science because science’s role does not extend to determining what constitutes the good for individuals and for society.
Now, the failure of scientific experiments can be admitted, without any shame or disrepute redounding to the experimenters. Not so for political experiments, however—not for as long as those who ran them retain political power. Political experiments are not carried out on bacteria, mice, or volunteers who have signed waivers. They are carried out on the governed, from whose consent the legitimacy of their governors must always in some sense derive. A political experiment’s failure cannot then be acknowledged without threatening to topple that legitimacy. The madder the experiment and the worse the results, the graver the threat to the experimenters, if ever failure is recognized.
Accordingly, the true motor of ongoing anti-Covid measures is not the control of Covid but the control of the Covid narrative. As Geoff Shullenberger has written, “pandemic mitigation measures now serve primarily as propaganda for themselves.” Conversely, for governments to abandon the measures outright would be to suggest the unsayable: that they should never have been undertaken in the first place, because both their failure and the vast collateral harms they would cause were entirely foreseeable. Therefore, it makes excellent political sense that the measures continue at a low ebb: indeed, it would be politically astonishing if measures were suddenly abandoned once we were certain that they did not work. On the contrary, it is precisely because they do not work that they must be continued.
Still, this political imperative does leave space for the measures to be rolled back slowly and quietly, as has indeed been the recent pattern in much of the West. Is the tide in fact ebbing out for good, or will it come rushing back one fine day? Here the gift of prophecy really does fail me. Clearly, there will always be excuses for more lockdowns: new Covid surges, new diseases, climate emergencies. Clearly, pharmaceutical companies will not blithely turn their backs on opportunities to conspire with authorities in forcing overhyped treatments on entire populations. Above all, the crisis in political legitimacy and the gnawing anomie that made the Covid response palatable to governors and governed alike admit of no swift resolution. However, against all this, the Covid regime has been so cruel and so utterly absurd that every shred of decency and sanity we have left cries out against it, and we may hope that this will suffice to ensure its eventual undoing.
For this to come about, the political cost of continuing these restrictions must be made greater than the cost of admitting defeat. If there truly can be a time after Covid, we, as citizens, must bring it into being.
Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images