Being a Member of Society

It’s been strange, in recent months, to continue to be concerned about COVID-19 in New York City as popular sentiment has leaned into “post-pandemic.” Although it runs counter to my nature, I’ve turned down invitations to both social and professional events that involved large groups gathering unmasked indoors. I’ve felt rather fugitive in having to explain to friends, especially as the weather has grown colder, that I’m back to not eating indoors. These are, of course, minor concerns, but they have me reflecting on the lived realities of people who deal with immunocomprimisation or mobility issues – the challenge of navigating social settings not structured to address one’s needs or that might put one’s life in danger.

In December of last year, I shared the hope that vaccines might bring a relatively rapid end to the COVID-19 pandemic, at least in countries rich enough to provide their citizens the privilege of vaccine access. Around the same time, I began to worry that variants that achieved some level of immune escape might upset this hopeful narrative. Sadly, although both expectations have been born out to some extent, the latter is arguably proving the more defining.

For a brief window in the late spring and early summer of this year, I truly let my guard down. Fully vaccinated, and breathing a sigh of relief, my partner and I resumed dining indoors, visiting friends homes, etc. (again, only relatively minor sacrifice had been involved in missing these pleasures, but they do add to the richness of life); however, by early July, as stories of Delta Variant breakthroughs proliferated, and multiple fully-vaccinated friends of ours experienced relatively nasty infections, we largely resumed taking pre-vaccination precautions, though informed by the latest science-based best practices (basically, masks indoors, and enjoying ourselves out). We agreed that we’d both keep that up until infection levels in NYC dropped down to at least the “Moderate” level according to the NYC DOHMH’s schema. Around the end of October, we were both starting to relax our precautions again, when a renewed increase in cases (sharper in our neighborhood than city-wide) caused us renewed mutual concern. Here’s what the citywide transmission chart looks like today:

Courtesy of the NYC COVID-19 data portal – the thick black line is the city-wide trend, the blue lines, those for the five boroughs.

For context, here’s the chart for the whole course of the pandemic in NYC:

Clearly, the numbers are much better today than during either of the previous two peaks, and infections now are disproportionately among the unvaccinated (although I’d venture, without having looked it up, that roughly equivalent numbers of vaccinated and unvaccinated New Yorkers are getting infected these days owing to our high vaccination rates). Additionally, the economy is much more open today than it was a year ago, and fewer precautions are being taken, on average, so perhaps the current trend should not be seen as too worrying. On the other hand, the sharp recent uptrend (broken at the very end only by a temporary break in testing over the holiday), could very easily be the start of a much more pronounced spike – fueled, as last year’s was, by holiday travel.

Rather than delve too much more deeply into all this, here’s a text to some friends from this morning that more or less sums up my current thinking:

GM! Hate to be the Cassandra, but in view of Hochul’s emergency order, etc, I’d like to propose drinks and oysters under a heater at [a restaurant] (or something like that!). Such a drag, but I’m quite concerned that we might be descending back into another pretty grim Covid winter […]. Hope I’m wrong but trends here, news from Europe, and now this omicron variant (about which I’m reserving judgment even if the financial markets aren’t) are all worrying.

Given that many people – including many friends of ours in service and healthcare jobs – have far less control over their exposure to infection risk, I’ve felt inclined, for my own health, and from a public health perspective, to stay cautious, as I enjoy the luxury of doing so. It’s been relatively easy to make that commitment as every week or so, I hear another story of a friend or acquaintance suffering brain fog, lasting loss of sense of taste or smell, etc. from a breakthrough, or have to cancel plans when, for example, many members of one branch of my family suffer breakthrough infections after attending an indoor event together.

At the same time I’ve been reflecting on all this, I’ve also continued my long-standing rumination on NYC’s public goods, which of course often brings me back to the central role of the automobile in our cities. Few activities lead people to engage in more casual sociopathy than driving, and yet through the dominance of car culture, these behaviors have been totally normalized. It is not seen as altogether surprising that an individual otherwise averse to threatening a stranger with deadly violence over a trifle might menace an elder, a child, or their own neighbor with a vehicle or fly into a screaming rage over something like a parking spot. That’s just car culture for you, and sadly, it’s been so totally naturalized in our collective consciousness that it is hard to see how ugly and disfiguring it is, or how totally insane. Such is the deep emotional attachment that people have to their vehicles, too, and the “freedom” those vehicles enable (the interminable hours in traffic, the bizarre alternate-side parking rituals, the expense, the stress, the occasional bouts of blinding fury), that attempts to challenge the dominance of car culture, even discursively, often as not lead to rather explosive encounters.

Not so dissimilar are people’s responses (at least some people’s!) should anyone dare to question their behavior with, say, their children, their dogs, their phones, their vapes… I recently made the mistake of suggesting to a fellow – who could easily have been mistaken for me by someone not good at telling people of vaguely similar age, build, and demographics apart – that it might be better not to let his toddler – who was just then stripping flowers, one at a time, from a shrub in a public garden – do too much damage to the plants “as a courtesy to everyone else, you know, and to set a good example.” He stared at me like bloody murder, and said, “You’re right. Thanks” in a way that clearly meant, “Fuck you. Drop dead.” It wasn’t a nice experience, but I continue to feel that part of what ails us in New York – as in the United States more broadly, as in much of the world – is the general collective unwillingness to intervene in the name of public goods and basic decency, an unwillingness, of course, often rooted in fear.

Of course, taken further, activities like ‘being white,’ ‘being male’, or ‘being rich,’ if admittedly more abstract than driving, are also far more likely still to lead to casual sociopathy. Those are, for all the obvious reasons, harder sorts of activities to talk about, given their foundationality to individual identity and social hierarchies alike.

In all of this, I guess the fundamental question is: What happens if everyone behaves the way that I’m behaving now? Do we end up with a dangerous, polluted, loud, angry, and schismatic metropolis? Do we end up with gardens stripped of flowers in the name of someone’s sentimental attachment to an idea of childhood (rather than a commitment to socializing children to be good lower-case-c citizens)? Do we end up with the intractably unjust social order we live within today?

These were much the issues and the question that were front of mind for me in March of 2020 when I began writing feverishly about the then-still-impending pandemic. Back in January, I made a conscious choice to shift my focus more or less fully back to the climate action that is at the center of my life’s work. These same issues and that same question have much the same relevance with respect to climate crisis and climate action, so as I hope we don’t descend back into another grim winter, but brace myself for the possibility that we do, I’ll end on a hopeful note: The pandemic will end, and I’m increasingly of the belief that the climate crisis will too, and not in a doomsday scenario. The work today is the hard, pragmatic social, political, infrastructural, and technological work of muddling through as quickly as possible to a more livable reality. I’m not particularly sanguine about the prospects that other social ills will be meaningfully addressed at the same time that worst-case-scenario climate crisis is averted, but it is good to have a North Star in engaging in the uncertain, taxing, long-term work of organizing – whether to remake our cities, redirect our often toxic culture, or steer away from the cliff’s edge with respect to greenhouse gas emissions (and other planetary boundaries) – and, even as most everyone is mired in contradiction and hypocrisy to some extent, my own North Star certainly resides somewhere around the intersection of public goods, public health, and public wealth.

Postscript: For anyone who’s interested, my last post, “Let’s Win a Gas Ban for New York City, was the first that I published in tandem on Mirror. After the New York City Council hearing last week on Intro 2317, I think we will win a gas ban for NYC before year’s end. Finally, reference is not an endorsement, but on the subject of New York City and society, I was reminded recently of what may be the funniest moment in all of Seinfeld (a low bar in the mind’s of some viewers, I know) and one relevant to this piece.

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