In the interest of providing useful fodder for future social historians (and also preserving some sense of sanity), the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been providing monthly updates about life during a pandemic. March's entry was all about fear and anger. April's entry was about anger and loathing. May is about the gap between the new normal and the old one.
It has warmed up considerably this month. If you squint, one can see the world trying to return to some semblance of normality. People are on the move again. The flowers are out and the local arboretum looks spectacular. For those of us fortunate enough to have backyards, the more temperate weather has expanded the space we can occupy without risk of infection. My spouse and I have ventured out to socially distanced barbecues and drinks with close friends. The sun is out long enough to do one of the most pleasant things in a civilization: take a leisurely after-dinner walk.
As for my day job, I have a regular correspondence about attending this conference or planning for that conference in the future. It would be easy to think that things are getting back to normal.
Except that they're not, not really. An awful lot of the summer rituals are still dormant. Summer camps are not operating. Air-conditioned movie theaters sit idle, waiting for "Tenet" to be released. Fenway Park is closed. Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket are in a weird state of limbo about the summer season.
Furthermore, even as I agree to future professional commitments, they all have an air of unreality to them. I annually attend two conferences with more than 5,000 attendees. In a world without any therapeutics, vaccines or proper contact tracing to ward off the coronavirus, those seem like exactly the kind of events that cannot go forward. And yet we go through the motions of organizing them, as if planning will make it so.
The information about the pandemic continues to flummox. With each month, new information emerges that somewhat contradicts the old information. Official guidance went from not wearing masks to wearing masks. Obsessions about contracting the virus through touching contaminated surfaces now appears to be overblown. Events that seem guaranteed to lead to a spike in cases have not, in fact, done so.
Living in Massachusetts, it has been frustrating to see the long plateau that our state has endured for both infections and deaths from the novel coronavirus. Both the state and its residents reacted well to the pandemic; citizens were already socially distancing before the state took official action. In contrast to, um, other parts of the country, appropriate mask-wearing in the commonwealth has been pretty robust. Nonetheless, the Bay State has been hit hard.
There are some plausible explanations for this. The Biogen conference in late February was a superspreader event, giving the virus a serious head start here. The spread in nursing homes has been a significant problem. And there's suggestive evidence that the exodus of New Yorkers to Boston helped spread the novel coronavirus. As a Red Sox fan, I find this last hypothesis entirely convincing.
What seems most frustrating about the current situation is the caprice of it all. Whether one looks globally or nationally, there are puzzles that make no sense. Why has Massachusetts done so poorly compared with other states? Why has Sweden, which altered its behavior the least, had a high mortality rate but not an astronomically high infection rate?
The pandemic has led me to dive into a bevy of historical work on pandemics, and this literature is dominated by two narratives. The encouraging one is that medical science has conquered an awful lot of the plagues that were endemic to mankind. The discouraging one is the enormous number of fumbles, stumbles and misperceptions that dominate the discourse until (and usually after) science has made the leap.
Right now we are still in the stumbling and fumbling phase. I hope it ends soon. I fear it will not.