Covid and the Illusion of Control

Two years and one month into the pandemic, back in April 2022, I got Covid-19.

At least, I think I did. My husband got sick, and tested positive on a PCR test. Two days later I got a negative result, but two days after that I started getting sick myself, and was miserable for about a week. I never did test positive on those danged rapid tests, but our best guess is that, yeah, we both had Covid.

For the record, everyone in our family — our son and his girlfriend, our daughter, and my 85-year-old dad — all got Covid between March and June of this year. All vaccinated, all boosted; most of us had cases that were not much worse than the worst flu we’ve ever had, but were still pretty miserable. Nobody, so far, seems to have had any long-term ill effects.

The Omicron variant of Covid has swept through previously Covid-safe Newfoundland like a hungry longshoreman through a meal of fish’n’chips. We had just over 20 Covid deaths in the province by the end of 2021, and have had nearly 200 since 2022 started.

It’s been a shock here, as it has elsewhere, to see this incredibly contagious (though proportionally less deadly) form of the virus hitting our communities at the same time as our governments, overwhelmed by pandemic fatigue and (likely) fear of protests, began to remove all public-health protections.

Look, I’ve blogged about the pandemic a lot since it started: maybe too much, but on the other hand we are living through a genuine historic event, one that will likely make the history books, and sometimes I just need to reflect, or rant. Or something.

But what these latest waves of Covid — the various Omicron subvariants that have been hitting us since 2022 came in — have really made me reflect on, is how it has shattered one thing many of us love to cherish: the illusion of control over our health, our bodies, our mortality.

After those first few “we’re all in this together” weeks of lockdown in March-April 2020, responses to the pandemic — you remember this, right? — began to divide sharply along political and cultural lines. If you wore a mask, practiced social distancing, you were, in the eyes of your more conservative friends, a pathetic sheeple who believed government’s “scamdemic” lies rather than relying on your God-given immune system. If you flouted that guidance, went maskless and hosted indoor gatherings, you were, in the eyes of me and your more liberal friends, a selfish, ignorant SOB who would kill your own grandma for a chance to double-dip your nachos at an indoor party.

In 2021, when the vaccine rollout began, the differences became even more stark. My own attitude towards people who refused to get vaccinated ranged (and still does range, honestly) from disbelief to rage. And the results justified that disbelief and that rage: as the Delta variant replaced Original Flavour Covid, stats from all over showed that unvaccinated people were more likely to get Covid, suffer badly from Covid, spread Covid, and die from Covid.

Here in Newfoundland, where we were patting our collective backs for a pandemic well-managed, we had a few small outbreaks in fall 2021 resulting in a dozen or so Covid deaths; they disproportionately happened in areas and among groups with lower rates of vaccination than the rest of the province.

That was life in the second half of 2021: the pandemic wasn’t over; it was still real, but it was controllable. Controllable by those of us who chose to get vaccinated and wear our masks. Everyone else could just suffer the consequences of their actions. Remember US President Biden calling it a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” in July 2021?

Life is so terrifying and uncertain, even at the best of times. Sickness, accident, injury, death: we do everything we reasonably can to prevent those things, but they come for us all in time, anyway, sometimes with dizzying randomness. We cling to our precautions as more than just common sense: whether it’s “eating clean” or running 5K a day or doing yoga or getting all your shots, we sometimes let ourselves believe these things are talismans that will protect us against the inevitability of sickness and death.

And in 2021, the Covid vaccine felt like the ultimate talisman, in the face of this scary new threat.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still glad I got vaccinated. I’ve gotten my first booster and now that I’m eligible for a second booster I’ll be getting it within the next couple of weeks. I firmly believe that being vaccinated, as well as following other sensible public-health precautions, is the best way to avoid getting or spreading Covid. On the broad population level, the stats still bear out the science: being fully vaccinated and boosted gives you a slightly better chance of avoiding Covid, and a much better chance of avoiding serious illness and death.

But on the anecdotal level of the people we see every day, it doesn’t always feel like that. Everyone I know well who’s had Covid has been fully vaxxed and boosted, while I know several unvaccinated people who’ve somehow still managed to avoid it (or, I guess, kept really quiet when they got it).

The randomness is head-spinning, sometimes. At the end of June, I went to a wedding and sat at a table with three other people, all three of whom caught it while I didn’t. Other people I knew at the same event were struck down or spared with absolutely no regard for who was vaccinated, who’d had it before, etc. Because our personal experiences are made up of anecdotes (which, you’ll remember, are not data), it can feel like things are random, like no precautions we take make a difference.

Of course it make sense to keep taking precautions, but I no longer have that safe, comfortable, late-2021 feeling that my vaccine and my mask are amulets of protection that will guard me against evil. Nor do I have the smug satisfaction that some of us (OK, maybe it’s just me) used to have in being able to say, “Well, OK, you didn’t get vaccinated and you got Covid — I guess that’s your choice!”

But all the pandemic has really done is throw into stark relief something that has been true all along. We live in fragile, fallible, doomed-to-fail human bodies. There are lots of smart, sensible things we can do to take better care of those bodies, but none of those are magic charms. In the end (I’m sorry to tell you this) they will all fail us.

I’ve always been hyper-aware of the type of people who believe that good practices are a magic charm against illness and death, because I’m Seventh-day Adventist. This means that I grew up surrounded by people whose attitudes towards “the health message” — mostly focused on not smoking, not drinking alcohol, and eating a vegetarian or (better! more godly!) vegan diet — often veered beyond “this is good, sensible advice to follow” and into the realm of magical thinking.

As with our Covid masks and vaccines, so with vegan diets and teetotalling: the flip side of thinking “my good choices will save me!” is the nasty inner (sometimes outer!) voice that says, “and your bad choices are the reason why you’re suffering!”

I thought about this once when an extremely strict Adventist man I knew slightly — the kind who was observant of dietary rules down to the smallest degree — was dying of stomach cancer. Now, this was not a man who was particularly vocally judgemental of others, but I knew he was someone who would have felt quite confident in the rightness of his healthy choices, and would have believed, or at least hoped, those choices would grant him a long and healthy life.

Again, on the broad, population level, this does work — look at the data on Adventist “blue zones” — but on the individual level, well, there just aren’t any guarantees. I thought about that strictly vegan man with stomach cancer, and the bitter irony that the very part of his body where his greatest caution and discipline was exercised was the part where cancer struck him.

Some choices are smarter than other choices, but truly, there are no magic charms.

And what to take away from this? For me, just the fact that whether I’m living through the third year of a global pandemic, or through my fifty-seventh year in a fragile human body — there are no guarantees. I’ll keep trying to make good choices, but I’ll also try to stay humble about them. The belief that we have any control over what happens to our bodies is, ultimately, a seductive illusion. Like any illusion, it can be comforting to believe, but it’s always false.

One Reply to “Covid and the Illusion of Control”

  1. You wrote: “After those first few “we’re all in this together” weeks of lockdown in March-April 2020, responses to the pandemic — you remember this, right? — began to divide sharply along political and cultural lines. If you wore a mask, practiced social distancing, you were, in the eyes of your more conservative friends, a pathetic sheeple who believed government’s “scamdemic” lies rather than relying on your God-given immune system. If you flouted that guidance, went maskless and hosted indoor gatherings, you were, in the eyes of me and your more liberal friends, a selfish, ignorant SOB who would kill your own grandma for a chance to double-dip your nachos at an indoor party.”

    How true!!!!! And I still agree they are ignorant SOB’s,

    Great article and well thought out!

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