The Cruelest Phase

I keep coming back to the same thought over the past few weeks: more than two years into a global pandemic that has likely killed more than a million people in the United States and three million worldwide, we are just now entering the cruelest phase of the this health crisis.

Now, a disclaimer. I am a historian, and an ancient historian at that. I don’t study public policy or statistics or medicine, and my observations here are supremely anecdotal. That said…

As hard as the first year of the pandemic was for many people—and it was hard—I remember at least a superficial sense of collective unity. People played politics with PPE, many places resisted installing mask mandates, and too many people lost their jobs, but amid the chaos of uncertainty there was an acknowledgement in the collective wisdom about what needed to be done and which people were already straining against the impossible.

The second year meant settling into something akin to a new normal and an optimistic sigh of relief at the flood of vaccines making their way into people’s arms. After all, the US responds to crises best when they can be solved by the blunt instrument of mass production.

But here at the start of year three, I am worried. The vaccination levels have long-since flattened and the rates of boosters lagged precipitously behind despite the appearance of two highly-contagious variants. At the same time, movements against masks and vaccines gained traction under the rhetoric of freedom. Organizations used the lulls between waves and availability of vaccines to drop remaining mitigation measures. Congress stripped Covid funding altogether from the latest funding bill. People have gradually let their guard down as they have watched their peers do so with seemingly no ill-effects.

Back in December 2020 I wrote:

COVID didn’t so much create problems as lay bare the fundamental structures of a society where public infrastructure (let alone any pretense of a social safety net) has been dismantled and sold for parts.

A year and a half later, things are worse. The changes put in place proved temporary accommodations rather than substantive reforms and the people who have been holding entire fields like, say, healthcare and education together are running on fumes. In the case of education, a field notorious for overwork and low pay, the CRT panic has made the job more challenging even beyond Covid and one recent survey found that 55% of respondents are now looking at leaving the field sooner than they had planned, up from 37% in the same survey at the start of the school year. The result is critical shortages in healthcare workers and teachers which puts more burden on those who remain and thus creating the potential for cascading failures.

A new variant (Omicron BA.2; I see we broke pattern and are delaying the arrival omega) is the dominant strain of Covid in the United States and your trend-line-of-choice is heading in the wrong direction, be it positive tests, waste water testing, or Yankee Candle reviews. Despite mendacious bloviating that the pandemic is over, it was a matter of when, not if, the next wave hit. This time, though, there isn’t even the pretense of mitigation measures, let alone federal funding for testing and treatment. And just wait until health insurers determine that Covid is a pre-existing condition.

The point here is not that everything is absolutely terrible, at least about this. I am vaccinated, boosted, and live in a region with relatively low case rates. However, I also worry that we are at a point where these same factors that will facilitate the spread of the next wave are going to leave the people who contract the virus even more alone when it comes to dealing with the consequences. I hope I’m wrong.

You say oh-micron, I say ah-micron, let’s call the whole thing off.

This post has a soundtrack.

It happens at least once a semester. A student will be reading something aloud or making a point in a class discussion when they need to say a Greek name. They suddenly stop. Sometimes they stumble through, sometimes they will get a pained look on their face as they struggle with where to begin.

I gently offer a pronunciation if they look at me for relief, though I encourage them to repeat it rather than simply saying, “yeah, that.” 

Sometimes a student will simply power through.

Nobody likes to seem stupid. My mother like to tell a story about how I spoke early but then stopped — possibly because I thought that people were laughing at me — and then didn’t speak again until quite late developmentally. When I finally returned to the world of the vocal, I spoke in complete sentences. 

Some of those details might be off, but I have great sympathy for that version of my infant self.

I still struggle with these feelings. I don’t like not knowing things. I am chagrined when I learn that I am mispronouncing a word, which is a particular issue when there are any number of vocabulary terms I learned by reading them in books.

It is for this reason that I tell almost every one of my classes that I pronounce Greek like a hillbilly who rolled up from the forest. The last part is true, but I actually don’t know how I speak Greek, just that whatever it is isn’t “right.” I still don’t like speaking Greek in public because I am self-conscious about screwing it up. The same applies double to meter. I just do my best, and that is what I ask of my students.

Frankly, this is a microcosm of a larger issue. Students are not able to learn when they believe they are supposed to already have the answers. I blame standardized tests, personally, but it is probably more complicated.

The national crash-course on the Greek alphabet during the COVID pandemic naturally caused a panic over the pronunciation of “omicron.” It would be the height of embarrassment to say ah-micron when the right pronunciation is oh-micron.

Put bluntly: who gives a damn?

Seriously.

When a friend asked me, I had to say omicron aloud several times to determine what I say, at which point I realized that I usually say “ah,” but also sometimes “oh.” But even that level of investment misses the point. This is a virus that has killed millions of people world-wide and left untold numbers of others with lingering conditions. Billions of people are unvaccinated and early returns suggest that infants might be particularly vulnerable to the omicron variant.

Getting hung up on pronunciation, whether to use it as an elitist bludgeon because it makes you feel smart or out of fear that what you say will be wrong, just means getting distracted by superficial crap.