Waiting for the Jab

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 12.03.2021

Even though it feels like mere weeks, March of 2020 was actually an entire year ago. The prospect of a vaccine, back then, was fancifully distant: sure, people speculated about how long it would take to develop a cure, but most of our attention went towards wiping down groceries with disinfectant, holding our breath as we passed strangers on the street, and reciting grim news statistics on family Zoom calls.

Any dreams of herd immunity, in my case anyway, involved visions of a vaguely immediate return to the good old pre-corona life. However, while those dreams never died, as the months wore on a steady parade of “new normals” came into being. We learned how to safely see friends and visit the workplace. We weathered new waves of infections and changing lockdown rules with increasing grace. We even took one or two modest mini-holidays. Now the vaccines are finally here, and the fulfilment of the dream is (as always) much more mundane than first imagined: slowly, slowly, slowly, people are getting inoculated as the post-corona world arrives in imperceptible phases.

But let us contrast this picture with the past twelve months as they have elapsed in a country that has handled the pandemic with singularly dramatic ineptitude, but has also got its hands on a zillion vaccine doses and is now pumping them into its populace with breathtaking speed. I speak, of course, of my native United States. What exactly has gone on over there?

In their characteristic way, citizens of the USA have faced the pandemic with an all-or-nothing political and emotional intensity. In the early days, violent descriptions of the worst Covid-19 cases radicalized left-leaning Americans into a pugnaciously oppositional stance to anti-knowledge Trumpists who ostentatiously rejected mask-wearing rules and other vanilla health-and-safety measures. Each side in this “debate” codified its politics via personal actions: bare-faced naysayers piled into restaurants and threw parties while science-respecters doubled down on the rules, refusing to go inside grocery stores or socialize at all even when it was safe to do so.

In this, I see merely more evidence that the culture of the United States is deeply extremist. “Moderation” isn’t a cultural virtue: our national pride comes from how agential our individualization allows us to be and how fundamentally our capitalists can defeat problems. One fights global warming with newfangled inventions; obesity with liposuction; poverty with entrepreneurialism; bad schools with Silicon Valley technology. For many, the coronavirus game has been to keep raging against the anti-maskers until pharmaceutical heroics could ride in to save the day. (Not that I blame them – I would have been right there on the front lines.)

True, the whole world gleefully anticipated a vaccine, but it seems that Americans – on the whole – knew no other way to mitigate the situation than through hoping for a cure. That’s the kind of extremism I mean, the one that goes straight for a fundamental undermining of the problem. If the Luxembourger is parachuting down to the ground, fighting off annoyances like passing swarms of flies, the American is freefalling like a sack of rocks and furiously relying on the jetpack to start up before impact.

To be clear, this “extremism” has nothing to do with strong and radical political goals, or with extreme ways of rethinking our relationship with nature. Nor does “moderation” have anything to do with American political moderates who yearn for problematic status quos. Rather, I mean an everyday cultural extremism, a way of thinking that deploys plain information towards political narratives and doesn’t accept slow progress as progress.

And you can see it in the coronavirus endgame: a government famously unable to organize healthcare, public transport, or decent public education is currently stabbing and jabbing citizens with vaccines like crazy. The count is up to thirty million, reports the New York Times (March 8, 2021).

Maybe the broadest cultural difference I’ve felt is observable here: in Luxembourg, there is an underpinning attitude of moderation that takes the form of a sleepy scepticism, a joyfully sluggish annoyance about certain things. The vaccine has come here too: but instead of tearful odes to pharma conglomerates I hear, in flat but genuine tones: endlech..

Jeffrey Palms
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