Art for Plague Fatigue.

Plague Fatigue

The pandemic changed our lives but not our societies

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It has now been a year since my quarantine began, and I am still here. By here, I mean living in the liminal sequestered space that is quarantine. In this altered rendition of the otherwise social human condition, I peer at the world through the television, through my computer screen, through TikTok videos, and of course through piles upon piles of books. A year is a long time to pass in this germ-free hothouse that is my current life; I am immunocompromised and have to be more careful than most. The exhaustion borne of living this half-life has left me vulnerable to a bitterness that expands its borders with each day.

I don’t talk about this with anyone, not the people I interact with on Zoom or on text or any one of the many touchless, breathless means we now use to connect with one another. The reasons are simple: others have moved on; some are lucky enough to have been vaccinated, while others double mask and set about for their cousin’s wedding, for those are happening too, even if homespun and slightly abbreviated. Such has been the constriction of this experience that I know now at three months you are still optimistic, at six you’re sure there is a cure, at nine you are wont to moments of doubt, but by ten then eleven then twelve you are bereft, irrational. One year in, you have heard “the vaccine is coming soon” so many times that it seems devised to mock your frustrated longings.

I do not feel entitled to feel so bitter and blue. Last week I began to read Suleika Jaouad’s memoir Between Two Kingdoms, an honest and engaging account of Jaouad’s battle with a particularly aggressive leukemia. The book helps, because I feel similarly suspended between the world of sickness that has banished me to solitude and the world of the well that demands that articles be filed on time, bills be paid with alacrity. And then even Jaouad, who also has to live in strict sequestration after her bone marrow transplant and endures months and months of grueling and debilitating chemotherapy, gets well. In the last half of the book, Jaouad, poetic and thoughtful, begins a road trip. Selfishly, secretly, I stop reading.

If I feel any camaraderie in my disconsolate state, it is with doctors, but not because I am heroic—as they are—in the sacrifices I have made or the patients I have tended. Mine is an act of self-preservation, not altruism; but in conversations with them, I realize that they too are witness to the frailty of human existence and the desiccation of empathy. “Fatigue” is what one (who works at NYU and whom I wrote about in my series on doctors early on in the pandemic) replies when I text her to ask how she is doing. Later, we FaceTime and she tells me about the sense of betrayal so many in the medical community feel one year on. “We treat the patients,” she says, “but it is society’s responsibility to do their part in controlling this disease.” 

The truth is a casualty of Covid-19 and there appear to be no plans for its resuscitation.

Society, of course, has not done its part. Last weekend there were reports of sheriffs breaking up underground parties with hundreds in attendance—and those are only the ones that are caught. In Texas and Mississippi, there is no need to party undercover; both states have lifted the mask mandate entirely and ended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s restrictions, moving to permit 100 percent occupancy in bars and restaurants. “Now is not the time,” says the CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, but nobody seems to listen or care. The nearly 2,000 daily dead meet a similar reception, the perfunctory mien of it kindling the memory of an illustration I saw in a book about the Black Death, which shows a man piling bodies upon bodies on his horse cart. “How horrible it must have been,” I had thought then; “how horrible it is,” I think now. Not yet immune to Covid-19, America has nevertheless developed a different sort of immunity, one that coolly offers up “empathy fatigue” as a morally justifiable explanation of not caring.

My brother is a doctor, now thankfully vaccinated, and is also still treating Covid-19 patients. When I ask him the difference between the early days of the pandemic and now, he deploys a martial metaphor. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt like a naked soldier in the middle of the battlefield, confused as to how to protect my family and treat my patients while all the government was doing was squabbling over petty things.” As for now, he said, “I feel like I have armor now but the intelligence about the opponent has been so unreliable from the beginning that we do not know what to believe, the people we are protecting have lost all trust in the information coming in. Some think the enemy has nukes, some think the enemy is a farce, and some think the enemy does not exist at all.”

The truth, then, is a casualty of Covid-19 and there appear to be no plans for its resuscitation. A bewildering variety of promises and timelines regularly spews from the mouths of politicians. One week we hear that no promises can be made about whether things will be “back to normal” by December. A few weeks later it is announced that every adult American will have a vaccine available to them by the end of May. It is not a story of two weeks either; similar forecasts, revised forecasts, backpedaling and grandstanding has been the norm. The new Biden administration would like everyone to remember that most of the mistruths emanated during the Trump administration that so reveled in them. That is a fact, but making distinctions at this point may be more than a gaslit America can do.

Those with less restricted lives send me good wishes, exhort me to have hope. I value the first and pretend at the second. When hope is once frustrated, and then is again and yet again, it becomes a limp little thing that has to go into the ICU, and we know those are terribly crowded, inhospitable places at the moment. The customary nod to hope that comes at the ends of essays such as this will therefore not be provided here. Nor do I see any sense in making an effort to convince those of you who have been traveling to exotic locations—risking the continued transport of the virus—because you want to make the most of a Cancun bargain, or those of you who recovered from Covid-19 yourself to roam mask-less in the Costcos of America, or even the willful betrothed couples who just had to wed in a pandemic, to do better.

America stands at this grim anniversary as a failed nation, one that could not come together to defeat an enemy that could not be demonized as terrorist or Muslim. Its civic institutions have not been able to conjure a common spirit, its health care system so strained from a year of thankless overuse that one more surge caused by one extra virulent strain could cause it to collapse. Instead of truth, perhaps it is more appropriate to offer up a salute to ignorance, to the small reprieve of not knowing last March that this pandemic would go on so long, hurt so much, take more than half a million lives in this country alone, and change everything about our daily lives, while changing so little in our ability to govern ourselves.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of Veil (Bloomsbury 2017) and Against White Feminism (forthcoming, August 2021). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She's written for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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