The Case for Optimism In ‘22 — and Beyond
As we face the new year, it is lost on no one that those of us fortunate to have made it this far are heading into our third year living with COVID. At the same time, we are careening toward another all-important midterm election inside a nation seemingly as politically divided as ever. In addition, issues of wealth and health inequality, among other enormous issues, loom larger than ever. The one thing that seems easy during these difficult times is to be pessimistic.
But don’t be.
There’s an expression that has always resonated with me, “The short term is a long time when your head is under water.” And unquestionably our collective head has been under water. But still I believe that a strong case can be made for optimism. How’s that? By taking the long view, a.k.a. the historical perspective.
First let’s look at the pandemic. As we head from more than 800,000 COVID-related deaths in this country inching up towards one million, it’s easy to look back despairingly at health messaging that could not have been more muddled. Local statutes were in conflict with state statutes which were in turn in conflict with federal statutes which were in conflict with corporate statutes. And all were constantly changing. Everyone seemed to be cobbling together their own science to suit their desired lifestyle. There seemed no way out of this mess.
But regardless of whether you’re measuring Case Mortality Rate or Infection Mortality Rate or any other of the multitudinous metrics out there, the death rate for those who have caught COVID is somewhere around 1% and possibly even less regardless of variant. We’re all freaking out about Omicron because it sounds like something from a Transformers movie, but while Omicron is highly contagious, at the same time it is far less potent than Delta, requiring fewer — and shorter — hospitalizations to date. Which is not to undervalue the loss that 1% represents. That loss is profound.
But to give even more perspective, let’s compare all the variants with another terrifying pandemic from not so long ago, AIDS, which, at its peak, had a mortality rate of something like 80%. It was seven long, horrible years before retroviral meds turned AIDS into a manageable disease. Compare that to the mere 10 months it took from the first COVID case in the U.S. till protease inhibitors like Pfizer’s were approved here for emergency use. A reason for optimism?
COVID is awful and terrifying and we’re all looking forward to seeing it in our collective rear-view mirror. But keep in mind COVID has nowhere near the mortality rate of other epidemics we’ve lived through. Pandemics are not the least bit to be taken lightly but they don’t last forever. Today HIV barely cracks the Top 50 Causes of Death in the U.S. Magic Johnson has had HIV for 30 years and on his next birthday will have had it for half his life. Today the lifespan of the average patient with HIV, detected early, is nearly that of someone without.
It used to be the case that artists and academic and, dare I say, journalists were, for the most part, independent thinkers. But today everything is driven by commerce, generally in the form of likes. The fact of the matter is the mainstream media portrays things one way or another because it supports their branding and business models. Ideas get magnified by the internet so that even the smallest tweet takes on exaggerated importance. Our perspectives and our passions are constantly being vied for and commodified. The more extreme our positions, the more valuable we are to one side or the other. But are the majority of us that far apart from one another?
How many people actually moved to Canada when Trump was elected? The answer is a few hundred more than usual. Many outspoken celebs vowed to move to Canada if Trump was elected, including Bryan Cranston, Lena Dunham, Chelsea Handler, and Snoop Dogg (amongst many others) — but none of them actually did. Even Neve Campbell, who is Canadian, stayed put.
So… is our country really that divided? Really that dystopian? How many of you would hesitate to drive across America, west to east? Or north to south? I’d argue the American landscape today is not the Gilead of Handmaid’s Tale that many in the media would have us believe. Even when our divisions seem most severe, keep in mind that even our worst feuds don’t last forever. Think of all the bitter enemies our country has faced and where those seemingly intractable feuds stand today:
Japan — During World War II, the Japanese were feared and vilified much like Muslim extremists are feared today. Japanese Americans were rounded up and put in camps. But what a difference 75 years makes. Today Japan is America’s No. 4 trading partner. All feuds end eventually.
Germany was another dreaded enemy. Since WWII, however, Germany has become a model nation, leading the way on climate initiatives and compassionate treatment of its refugees. Today Germany has progressive laws against hate speech, is a huge trade partner and benefactor of Israel, and is America’s No. 5 trading partner. All feuds end eventually.
More recently, Vietnam has gone from a dreaded enemy to our No. 16 trade partner and a major Western tourist destination.
That is not to say that we don’t have fences to mend, progress to make, serious problems to solve, and critical things to fight for. But there have always been and will always be battles to wage and work to be done.
While our problems seem epic to us and are in fact epic in scale, there have been worse, more deadly pandemics. We have had worse feuds. Fought bloodier battles. And many of us are lucky to be enduring our woes here, in Santa Barbara, California. Things could be worse.
We’re all familiar with the phrase “things are always darkest before the dawn.” While scientifically that is not, in fact true (things are actually darkest in the few hours after sunset), as a metaphor I think it’s true that things always seem darkest right before they get better.
Take it from me. It’s easy to look in the fluorescent lit 5X magnifying mirror and see nothing but horrors and more work than you think you can possibly handle. But sometimes you need to step back and take stock. It will not always be this way. Even pandemics end. Even the worst feuds get settled. In the meantime, we keep on keeping on. Things will change. Things will get better. We will make it so.
I wish you all a new year filled with peace and love and joy and light and laughter. A year of interesting experiences and mind-bending conversations and, first and foremost, good health.
Happy New Year.