Opinion from Italy: The Pandemic is Not Done

Gubbio, Italy
Photo by Annalisa Bellini on Unsplash

So glad the pandemic is winding down! When I dip back into American news and social media, this seems to be the main current of opinion. It’s done! hey guys! EVERYONE BACK TO NORMAL.

Regarding the pandemic and timelines and human psychology, in light of our recent experience as a family, we were all fully vaccinated, and our symptomatic breakthrough infection rate was a shocking 100%. This has been the case with many of the local families we know. Fully vaccinated. All infected. All symptomatic. Two weeks ago I could barely crawl out of bed and couldn’t eat. My head and throat and chest were throbbing, Victor’s mouth was full of open canker sores, Eleanor’s arms looked like she’d harvested a patch of poison ivy. No one wanted to eat. Energy levels were about 10-20% of normal. I could barely talk.

After I rejoined the world this past week, I was peppered with questions from people whom I routinely encounter in my daily circuit of school, work, espresso. Was it like the cold, or like the flu? the asked me. Like neither, I said, annoyed by this forced choice, the hopeful comparisons, the yearned-for minimization. It was like Covid. I experienced symptoms I have never in my life had before – not with sinus infections, not with bronchitis. I shudder when I think of that dark gremlin that squatted on my chest like Hans Christian Anderson’s watercolor Death for almost a week. When I was at rest. Or in bed. The ache, the pain. The worry. Where was this going? Was it going to get worse? Would the immune system hold? What about long Covid?

Eleanor’s class of 25 was down to 8 or 9 students, and the kids were really sick. The parents got it. The grandparents got it. Everyone who got it was symptomatic and stayed positive for a full ten days. The symptoms were awful, and ran the gamut. Fortunately in our family there was no high fever or vomiting, but many of the kids had those symptoms, and some of the parents too. Now, no one died (yet, that we know of), and one father was hospitalized, but the second grade class has been on Covid tilt now for three weeks with serious disruption due to symptomatic illness.

The vaccinations aren’t working, some parents told me.

This is not what we were led to believe would happen, said others.

The virus is moving more quickly than medicine and technology are, and certainly than public health. I have said this a few times in response to such comments. This comment has garnered side-eye more than once. I am glad we were all vaccinated. We probably would have been even more sick without the shots we’ve all received over the past 14 months.

Numbers in Europe are on a steep rise. China is struggling. Hong Kong is in full crisis, with as many Covid deaths in the past two weeks as they’ve seen in the past two years – an older population that refused to vaccinate, and now with Covid mortality around 12% with the older patients. The U.S. is still seeing over 1200 deaths per day due to Covid. The spate of high-profile Covid positives in the U.S. does not surprise. I witnessed it jumping, quick and invisible as a static shock, through a whole class and its associated family members in a matter of days.

Yet governments at every level are repealing safety measures in conflict with the reality on the ground. No more tests, no more masks. Large groups, fine. Back to business as normal.

St. Anselm is famous for observing that the reward of patience is patience. I understand patience is not infinite. Human nature is what it is. Modern culture has trained us to speed up, hurry up, reduce load times, next-day delivery. People are tired, exhausted. Russia is going nuts in Ukraine. Inflation is soaring. There will be energy and food insecurity this year due to all the other moving parts. The supply chain is still in disrepair. Things are happening, yes.

But the strange optimism coming out of some quarters about the pandemic is jarring. I know that locking down hard is not the answer. But the new Covid BA.2 variant is said to have a reproduction number (R) of 18 – one of the most contagious viruses documented to date. When the R number is that high, collective immunity (however acquired) must be around a whopping 95% to offer meaningful protection and to save lives. OG Covid was far less contagious. But now we are seeing greater infectiousness, in spite of vaccines, with symptoms. And the antibodies from one variant may mean little when confronted with an evolved variant. This is why we all get colds, and the flu, year after year. One human body just doesn’t have that catalog of antibodies when viruses are quick to mutate.

People want to say the virus is now endemic. That it’s already just like the flu. I don’t think we are there yet, and wishing it were so will not, à la Star Trek, make it so. I have just in the past few days been starting to see similar comments in places like The New York Times, following weeks of articles that urged people to not worry, that what was happening elsewhere in the world was not going to happen in America. That there was no reason to think it would once more cross the ocean. (It has indeed, in many places in the U.S.) I’ve been watching American spring breakers in Florence all week. I can’t help but see where this is going, back to the U.S. Of course people want to travel. I want to travel. We all want to travel. But our travel carries an impact that we need to understand.

The pandemic is a long, long game, on so many levels. Stay strong, stay alert, be patient.

Written at the urging of an American friend.

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