Opinion

COVID is another forever war

There's no exit strategy when the enemy is already among us

It's déjà vu all over again. First, the weeks of official denial. Then bad news becomes impossible to ignore, prompting a shift in policy. The new policy offers an increase in resources to combat the problem while demanding temporary sacrifices in order to reach the goal. 

This pattern became familiar during the war in Iraq, when the term "surge" was introduced to the national lexicon. It was repeated in Afghanistan, where successive waves of reinforcement failed to prevent Taliban encroachment. And this week, the Biden administration is reenacting the cycle in its response to the Omicron variant of COVID.

It's a different enemy, but almost the same script.

Like previous surges, though, the battle of Omicron is likely to fail. That's not because the measures the administration announced are necessarily bad. To the contrary, new initiatives such as the provision of free tests are good and long overdue (if possibly too late to do much good at this point). But the president and his advisors are still unwilling to tell the truth: that COVID is with us for the foreseeable future — and possibly forever. 

I'm not the first to compare the way of thinking about the pandemic still dominant in official statements to the military disasters of the last two decades. My colleague Noah Millman and the journalist Daniel McCarthy have both noted parallels between the interminable conflicts that followed 9/11 and the "war" on COVID. "Like the old Afghan government," Millman wrote, "those in charge of public health have little practical ability to shape events. But they speak as if they are sovereign and in control." 

The illusion of control is evident in the continued fixation on masking. Even though cloth and paper offer little protection in the best circumstances, and most people use them erratically and ineffectively, they've become symbols of moral commitment that deflect questions about the wisdom of the enterprise. Remember the yellow ribbons that proliferated during the first Iraq War as a symbol of support for the troops, regardless of their actual mission? Masks have acquired a similar totemic function, quite independent of their limited practical value.

We're also fighting over the same spaces that became symbolic battlegrounds 20 years ago. Earlier this week, White House medical advisor Anthony Fauci made headlines when he suggested that masks should be worn on airplanes forever (it's not clear whether he was proposing that they should actually be required). Intentionally or not, his comments evoked the ostensibly temporary security measures that turned airports into deeply unpleasant, yet ineffective, fortresses after 9/11.

Moral symbolism isn't the only attraction of the long war on COVID; there's also a refusal to confront the actual risks involved. In a rhetorically heated but insightful post, Freddie deBoer observes on Substack that "the vast majority of those people who have died of COVID have been elderly, immunocompromised, or ill. Those who have been hospitalized by COVID have also been disproportionately obese, to a startling degree." 

But the very rhetoric of a "surge" makes this sort of calculation difficult. If the term itself is innocuous, its associations have become indelibly martial. The gradated graphics of case distributions, updated daily by news platforms, strengthen that impression. The image they present is a war for territory, with liberated areas clearly distinguished from those under enemy occupation. The implicit goal is to wipe the enemy from the very map. But that's exactly what we can't do.   

To be fair, it's not just disease we think of this way. At least since World War II, American politics has been permeated by military metaphors and assumptions. The war on COVID follows the War on Drugs and War on Poverty as a systematic mobilization against a foe that evades demands for unconditional surrender. But most problems — like most wars — don't work that way. 

When resistance seems futile, denial is an appealing alternative. But that won't work, either. Even if the risk of death is low for most people, COVID is still a serious illness. And the rejection of any countermeasures whatsoever threatens to imprison the most vulnerable in their homes. That's why vaccination, including boosters, remains the most valuable tool available to us. Even former President Donald Trump thinks so.

But vaccinations aren't perfect either. While they offer significant protection against the worst effects of the disease and somewhat less against infection, the shots didn't measure up to promises that they would allow the country — and the Biden administration — to "beat" COVID. As in previous conflicts, final victory seems like an illusion.

Military conflicts offer an option that this struggle doesn't, though. We could leave Iraq and Afghanistan. But there's no exit strategy when the enemy is already among us. Two decades after 9/11, we can't break free from this forever war.   

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