Comment: After 2 years of pandemic why aren’t we better at it?

We need to address the deficiencies and inequities in our system that covid has plainly exposed.

By Lyz Lenz / Special To The Washington Post

When I began experiencing covid-19 symptoms, I couldn’t find a PCR test within a two-hour drive of my home for at least a week. I bought one of those home tests you have to send back to get results, but when I went to drop it off at the local health department, it was inexplicably closed. So I had to walk into a UPS drop-off site at a pharmacy, which didn’t feel safe for anyone. I put on my KN95 mask and tried not to breathe. I didn’t know what else to do.

The pharmacy had four rapid tests left. I bought two. The man behind me purchased the rest. I went home and took one: I was positive.

That same day, the county next door stopped its contact tracing program. I called one of the supervisors to find out what was going on, and he too had covid. That same week, in response to an overwhelming demand for tests, President Biden encouraged people to find one by Googling “covid test near me.”

Many people don’t have access to reliable Internet service, and information isn’t always available in multiple languages. Many people don’t have the time — or patience — to do that research or fill out the lengthy forms required before a grocery or pharmacy website tells you that no tests are available. And who can take off work just as a rare PCR testing appointment opens up? It was a moment that highlighted the willful ignorance of inequality that has made defeating the virus in this country an uphill struggle.

I live in Iowa, a red state, where we opened everything up in May 2020 and have never looked back. Nor will we. In the spring of 2021, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law outlawing mask mandates in schools. As a working single mom, part of me is glad that schools are open, because affordable child care is harder to find than Atlantis. But I’m also worried for teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers who have little choice but to come to work despite a lack of affordable health care. It’s an impossible situation, with few right answers. And because our leaders have failed to carve a clear path forward, mothers and teachers are left to fight over economic scraps in a society that refuses to help them.

Whatever temporary safety net was constructed in the spring of 2020 has been dismantled. Rent relief. Extended unemployment benefits. The expanded child tax credit. All gone. People are still sick and dying, but the expectation is that Americans get: Back to work. Back to school. Back to everything, while hospitals are overloaded and doctors and nurses are desperate. And the president brags that our economy is strong.

It’s the beginning of the third pandemic year, but it feels like we’ve gotten worse at all of this, not better.

Like so many people, I thought the worst would be over when I got vaccinated. To get there faster, I even signed up for a vaccine trial. We are lucky that the vaccines have been remarkably effective at preventing death and severe illness, a huge win for the world, and the likely reason my case of covid this month was mild and cleared up after a few days. But vaccinations haven’t ended the pandemic. Unequal access to the shots worldwide has meant more variants. The disease has spread faster. In our country, it’s easy to blame the strident anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers for the persistence of the virus, but the reality is that the unvaccinated are disproportionately low-income and therefore less likely to have access to pharmacies, paid time off and the Internet. That creates significant barriers to getting vaccines, even if you want one.

And then, well, I thought perhaps it would be better when my kids were vaccinated. But here they are, 10 and 8 years old and fully vaccinated, and we’re still not free of this. It feels like we’ve been running a marathon only to have the finish line moved farther ahead.

To survive, I have to accept a higher level of risk than I’ve gotten used to and tell myself, This is how I live now. But to keep my friends and neighbors safe, I have to keep doing all I can to prevent the spread of the virus. It’s a hard line to straddle; the one between survival and love. It’s hard to live in a world where our systems are straining to support us, thrusting the burden of care on our shoulders.

And structural racism and poverty have stacked the deck against us. For example, in 2020, a study connected 8 percent of cases and 4 percent of deaths in the pandemic’s first few months to meatpacking plant outbreaks. These low-paying jobs are disproportionately held by immigrants and people of color. Mothers have shouldered more of the burden of this pandemic; especially women of color, who have been forced out of the workforce at a higher rate than White mothers.

It’s easier to pathologize individual choices, telling people to try harder, vote smarter, be positive, drink water, than it is to focus on the structural issues that make it harder to try, that make voting difficult, that make pessimism feel like realism and poison the water.

Where I live, many people don’t mask anymore, but life exists with less moral clarity than our political divisions would suggest. it’s more complicated than just maskers against anti-maskers. It’s more complicated than anti-vaxxers against vaxxers. It’s more complicated than full-on covid denial or a frenzy of pandemic anxiety. And trust me, I know; I live in this liminal space. I co-parent with someone who is a good parent but who disagrees with me about pandemic safety measures. Beyond the shouts on cable news, most of us are picking our way through this mess, trying to do the next best thing, when so few good things are to be found.

But there are good things. More than 60 percent of Americans are now fully vaccinated. Kids ages 5 to 17 are eligible for the shots. And while it doesn’t feel comfortable, the pandemic has forced us to see, even for a moment, the vast inequalities in our society, which has always been built on the backs of the people who are now breaking: meatpackers, low-wage workers, nurses, doctors, mothers. This is a road-to-Damascus moment; when we are forced to see the truth. It’s an opportunity to change.

My son graduated from kindergarten in 2020, and I wonder how much of the world before all of this he will remember. That breaks my heart, even though I realize it’s a false nostalgia. We all want the world to work better, but we’re finally realizing that it’s always been broken. It’s OK to see it for the wreck it is. Maybe this is the year we stop trying to get back to normal and acknowledge that what we had before wasn’t — and isn’t — good enough.

Lyz Lenz is the author of “God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America” and “Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women.”

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