It’s interesting to look back at how people’s attitudes toward COVID-19 have changed over the past year. Back in February 2020, when I was attending a boarding high school in Maryland, I was explicitly forbidden by my teachers from wearing a mask, even though my parents, a month into their self-quarantine in Shanghai, had mailed me a box of N95 masks. By March, people had begun to get nervous, though it would be another month until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first advised people to wear cloth face coverings in public. My friends refused to meet me at the tennis court, and the more adventurous ones were hesitant to post a Snapchat story of us hanging out, fearing that their friends would judge them for being selfish and irresponsible.
I flew back to China in April and have not returned to the United States since. Flipping through my social media pages, however, it seems that people’s attitudes toward COVID-19 have changed again. Trendy posts of outdoor dining and socially distant picnics from the summer were replaced by pictures of unmasked gatherings, ignoring the fact that we are living amid a global pandemic. Many Penn first years who moved in during the fall semester posted pictures of themselves having a blast with their new squads in close quarters, all smiling without masks. I imagine that for my future peers, hanging out unmasked has become socially acceptable again.
In contrast to the new social norm is a gloomy medical reality. Pennsylvania’s daily COVID-19 case count and hospitalizations peaked in mid-December, reaching over 10,000 new cases per day and 6,000 hospitalizations. In response to the surging COVID-19 cases, the CDC recommended universal mask-wearing for the first time, including all indoor settings. This raises the question: Why do sensible people consciously violate official health guidelines?
The answer, as Gina Kolata of The New York Times argues, lies in the conflict between the medical and social elements of the pandemic: the medical pandemic ends when the number of new COVID-19 cases and COVID-related deaths drop, but the social pandemic ends when the pandemic of fear about the disease disappears. In other words, the social pandemic is over when we individuals — not public health experts — decide it’s over.
It’s important to recognize that the conclusion of the COVID-19 pandemic will not only be a medical process but also a sociopolitical one. Some state governments, for example, insisted on reopening the economy despite an upward trend in the number of new cases. Likewise, Penn’s decision to welcome all undergraduates back to live on campus is not only informed by effective testing and tracing, but also because Penn depends on us to plug its projected $91 million budget deficit. Students’ decisions to disregard health guidelines are based on individual cost-benefit analyses, which weigh both personal health and the fear of missing out socially.
To be clear, I’m not singling out my peers for breaking social distancing rules. In fact, their behavior Is representative of that of most Americans, who are simply tired of lockdowns, curfews, and self-quarantines. A Gallup poll from November shows that 49% of Americans would be very likely to stay home for a month if public health officials recommended it, down from 67% in early April. While most people understand the health benefits of shelter-in-place orders, pandemic fatigue makes them less motivated to follow protective measures.
As the crisis drags on, people have stopped recognizing COVID-19 as an existential threat and have instead begun to treat it as a fact of life — hence the end of the social pandemic. Ryan McMaken, a senior editor at the Mises Institute, aptly analogizes this trend to people’s increasing tolerance of the risk of speeding: everyone understands that driving at 55 mph saves lives, but some still choose to exceed the speed limit, believing that arriving at their destination earlier is paramount to fines and the fact that 9,378 deaths in 2018 involved speeding. By the same token, those who ignore public health recommendations have done their calculations and decided the risk of infection is worth the reward, whatever it may be.
Given that college students are less vulnerable to COVID-19, it should surprise no one if they see the social end of the pandemic even with no medical end in sight. Therefore, I see no point in echoing calls for “holding your peers accountable” in the spring semester; it’s up to individual Penn students to follow the health guidelines, though I doubt many will. When future historians construct a narrative on how the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on, we will be remembered for defying health guidelines out of our own self-interests — and run the very real risk of being nailed to history’s pillar of shame.
BRUCE SHEN is a College first-year student from Shanghai, China studying German Studies. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.