By David M. Greenwald
This month the iconic essayist and journalist Joan Didion died at the age of 87. While I am a fan of a number of her works, I decided to re-read Slouching Towards Bethlehem this week, transporting myself to the mid-1960s California.
While I know we are supposed to be joyous as we turn over a new year, my mood borders on the bleak. We seem headed in a very bad direction, toward some sort of cataclysm. 2021 might not have been nearly as bleak as 2020, but it churned out a lot of hope that seemed premature, and perhaps signs at the end that things are headed to a much worse place.
Here we are, one year after the COVID vaccine was first distributed to the public, and this week we are shattering new records for the most cases. The seven-day average tells one story—nearly 400,000 per day, three times what it was just two weeks ago, and the one-day totals are shattering all previous highs.
There is some hope that this could be short-lived and not completely catastrophic. We are seeing in South Africa, where Omicron started, the numbers are already going down.
The NY Times reports, “New estimates from researchers at Columbia University suggest that the United States could peak by Jan. 9 at around 2.5 million cases per week, though that number may go as high as 5.4 million.”
They expect it to peak in mid-January, however, and “the enormous numbers of people getting simultaneously infected could greatly strain hospitals, experts said, especially in places with lower vaccination rates or in places where hospitals are already overburdened.”
Our failure to get a huge swath of the population vaccinated is crippling. But there is potential good news now. For several weeks I have been skeptical of claims that Omicron is less severe. Part of it is the make-up of the people of South Africa—younger, more likely to have been infected with Delta, and therefore it would be expected that we would see less hospitalization and death.
Follow-up studies also were encouraging, but how much of that was simply an artifact of previous exposure and the fact that vaccinated people are still getting Omicron, just less severe because of the protection?
But a report in the New York Times yesterday found, “A spate of new studies on lab animals and human tissues are providing the first indication of why the Omicron variant causes milder disease than previous versions of the coronavirus.
“In studies on mice and hamsters, Omicron produced less damaging infections, often limited largely to the upper airway: the nose, throat and windpipe. The variant did much less harm to the lungs, where previous variants would often cause scarring and serious breathing difficulty,” it continued.
So, for the first time, we have some harder evidence that the apparent milder symptoms might be real rather than just an artifact of previous infection, younger demographics, and vaccination.
COVID, as contagious as it is and disruptive, was never going to by itself be cataclysmic. But it has exposed very serious deficiencies in our society—vaccine reluctance, medical and scientific skepticism and the stark and growing divide between red and blue America.
In my view, this country sits on the brink of democratic dissolution. We narrowly avoided real peril from November to January 2020-21. The attempted insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 should have been a wake-up call. The efforts by former President Trump were not going to work given the dynamics of government and the relative wide margin of victory, but a closer election might have been a different story.
Basically, the system was strained, but held in the face of pressure. Trump could not pressure officials to change the outcome. Local elected officials, state election officials and the courts provided an effective buffer. The Vice President, much to his personal detriment, refused to play along. But a surprising number of House Republicans voted to disallow the results.
I fear what happens next time in 2024. Trump will run again and most assuredly get the Republican nomination. It is hard to know if Biden runs again in his 80s. It is hard to know the state of the country. It is very likely there will be strong Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, and insurrectionists have made headway into local government—what happens? Hard to know.
Will either side accept a loss in 2024?
Finally, the most grave peril facing us is climate change. The only real question is how bad it will be. After all, this past month we saw severe weather—tornadoes in Minnesota in December, both Denver and Chicago set records for the latest first snowfall, fires continue raging out of control in Colorado again in December.
Once again, the crisis has been made worse by ineffective leadership from the US and lack of cooperation between the major nations of the world.
Justin Worland in Time, writes, “In mid-2020, after the pandemic had settled in, I wrote in a TIME cover story that the stars had aligned to make 2020 and 2021 the ‘last, best chance’ to keep the world from experiencing the worst impacts of climate change.”
But 18 months later, “the world seems poised to blow it. Governments across the globe have failed to spend big on a green economic recovery. Political leaders from the world’s largest economies have made lofty promises to eliminate their carbon footprints but failed to offer concrete policies to get there. And President Joe Biden’s ambitions for bold climate legislation have been stymied in Congress.”
“We’re sort of standing on the precipice,” says Rob Jackson, an earth system science professor at Stanford University and the chair of the Global Carbon Project. “I am loath to say it, but I’m deeply skeptical that we will reduce emissions fast enough to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5°.”
Are we being a bit gloomy here? Perhaps. We may well have a number of opportunities here to forestall the worst impacts. We still have a relatively good quality of life. The danger though is, without stronger and more united leadership, we may see our nation and the world start backsliding—we definitely sit at a critical moment in time where we have not lost all yet, but the longer we delay, the worse it’s going to be.