Let It Rip

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Live With The Virus

Brent Thomas, dressed as the historic figure Anne Hutchinson, leads a tour through Provincetown on July 24, 2021. Thomas said they limit their tour to 10 people and ask people to practice pandemic protocol. This group confirmed they had all been vaccinated. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

It started with a text.

Hey Sully — I started feeling cold symptoms a couple of days ago and didn’t think that much of it but then found out a house of SF guys we were out dancing Fri-Sat-Sun tested Covid-positive despite vaccination. Started with sore throat, cough, etc which is what I have. Most of another house too I know have similar symptoms (and perhaps half of town from last week at this point).

Anyway I went to the clinic this morning and I’m positive. Still have some smell and taste, feel just kinda cruddy But I don’t think a fever.

He asked me to be on call if he needed something. A day later, he wrote, “Felt cruddy last night — chills, a little sweats, but slept 10 - 11 hours and slightly better so far today.” Symptoms lasted about a week, and we texted until I bumped into him as we were both walking our dogs on the beach. He seemed fine.

Then I spotted an old friend near some distant tidal pools, began to walk toward him to say hi, and he waved me away for the same reason: he was sick. The next day, I spotted my next-door neighbor, wearing a neck gaiter alone on the beach, and I was about to tease him but saw the look in his eyes. Another one. Then three texts from health agencies in DC and Ptown telling me I may have been exposed. I’ve had no symptoms, so I haven’t gotten tested. But I’m a little bit happier I decided to get a Pfizer shot after my J&J. 

Is Provincetown our future? Count me skeptical. In Fourth of July week, the town was completely swamped this year, followed swiftly by Bear Week; lines for the bars lasted for blocks; the bars themselves were packed; the weather was dreadful, forcing most of the crowd to pack tightly inside. A tiny town built for a few thousand residents has to absorb up to 40,000 in peak season. One bar in particular — the home for a dance party with the inspired name of “Fag Bash” — resembles a kind of dank dungeon where sweat drips from the ceiling and mold reaches up the walls. It might have been designed for viral transmission. A big swathe of the crowd had also just come from a week of Pride partying in New York City and were likely not, shall we say, at their immunological best. It was a muggy, viral heaven in a classic post-plague burst of bacchanalia. I’m way too old for that kind of thing these days, and don’t like crowds, and so stayed away, finishing the audio version of my forthcoming essay collection. Good call, it turns out.

But would I have gone if I’d had the energy? You bet I would have. Maybe not into the crammed basements, but I had a blast at the open-air tea-dance the same week and since. And why not? I’m double-vaccinated. The chances of becoming sick enough to be hospitalized are extremely small; the chance of death, none at all. My friend who first texted me is super-fit (as are most of the young torsos who show up that week), but he’s also my age (weirdly enough, he’s the same friend I went to stay with when I first tested HIV-positive in 1993). He endured a nasty week of a fluish bug: the kind of thing that happens without any plague at all. Just part of the inherent risks of being human on a planet that does not belong exclusively to us.

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And this seems to me to be the key question here: do we really want to get back to living? I do. So take the rational precautions — a solid vaccine — and go about your business as you always did. Yes, I’ll wear a mask indoors if I’m legally required or politely asked. But I don’t really see why anyone should. In a free society, once everyone has access to a vaccine that overwhelmingly prevents serious sickness and death, there is no reason to enforce lockdowns again, or mask mandates, or social distancing any longer. In fact, there’s every reason not to. 

We are at a stage in this pandemic when we are trying to persuade the hold-outs — disproportionately white Republicans/evangelicals and urban African-Americans — to get vaccinated. How do we best do this? Endless, condescending nagging won’t help. Coercion is not an option in a free country. Since the vaccinated appear to be able to transmit the virus as well, vaccine passports lose their power to remove all risk. Forcing all the responsible people to go back to constraining their everyday lives for the sake of the vaccine-averse is both unfair and actually weakens the incentive to get a vaccine, because it lowers the general risk of getting it in the broader society.

So the obviously correct public policy is to let mounting sickness and rising deaths concentrate the minds of the recalcitrant. Let reality persuade the delusional and deranged. It has a pretty solid record of doing just that.

The government cannot be held responsible for sickness and death it has already provided the means to avoid. People are responsible for their own lives. The government can do some things — like making vaccination mandatory for federal workers and contractors, and especially in the military as George Washington did in the Revolutionary War for smallpox. It could offer money — or entry into a lottery, as many states are doing. All good. But the most potent incentive for vaccination is, to be brutally frank, a sharp rise in mortality rates. The more people who know someone who has suffered and died the likelier they will see the logic of taking measures to avoid the same fate. In other words: if people recklessly refuse to face reality, call their bluff.

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So let it rip. The one silver lining of plagues in the past is that, at some point, they blew themselves out, by creating herd immunity. What we have done with Covid is greatly slow that process down. We did so for good reasons — because it would give us time to get a vaccine, and because a full-scale epidemic would overwhelm the healthcare system. But now that we have several vaccines, and can adjust them from time to time, and the healthcare system is not on the verge of collapse, the logic for lockdowns and masking has completely disappeared.

By getting rid of these barriers to transmission, we can actually accelerate the end of the plague, by allowing natural forces to take the helm. Which suggests another reason for getting this over with more quickly: the longer a virus hangs out in a population, the more able it is to mutate and evolve. Quickening this process can reduce that possibility.

Living with a virus — rather than defeating it — is not emotionally satisfying. It does not, in our minds, remove the threat. But the truth is: humans have no choice but to live with viruses. We always have. I’ve lived with a potentially fatal one buried in my bone marrow for almost 30 years. I still test HIV-positive. Almost certainly, I will die HIV-positive. But I will not die of HIV. And that’s ok. As long as I can prevent it wreaking havoc on my immune system, and ruining and ending my life, I’m content to live with it. We’re almost friends at this point.

These viruses challenge the psyche, and the trick, it seems to me, is not to deny their power and danger, but to see past them to the real goal: the living of your life. If you are not careful, this one viral threat can crowd out all other perspectives, distort your judgment of risk, and cause you to be paralyzed by excessive caution and fear. But defeating a virus often does mean living with it. We already do this with the flu. There’s no reason we can’t do it with Covid as well.

Those who live in denial, who have somehow convinced themselves that the virus is a hoax or a deep-state plot or a function of white supremacy or whatever, will experience what everyone in denial eventually experiences: reality. And reality is the most tenacious influencer I know.


(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my long take on the January 6 hearings and the deepening degeneracy of the Trump right; an in-depth discussion with Wesley Yang on the woke’s successor ideology and how to counter it; a strong dose of dissents over my dovish approach to China; four notable quotes from the week and a prescient one from 2010; nine smart pieces from other substackers, including a debate on natalism; a grim view from a window on the Mexican border and a paradisal view from the tiny nation of Tonga; a heavenly video from central Oregon; a sheepish video from northern Israel; and, as always, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)

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A re-subscriber writes:

I’m sincerely pleased to re-up my subscription to The Weekly Dish. Congratulations on the success of your first year on Substack, and please keep being yourself! And I look forward to seeing my copy of your new book when it arrives. 

As you can see from my Grindr profile pic, my old swag from your blogging days is getting kind of ratty. Time to offer some replacements!

Out On A Limb: My First Impression Of Barack Obama

Here’s another audiobook excerpt from my upcoming collection — my first encounter with Obama on the early campaign trail in the spring of 2007:

You can pre-order “Out on a Limb,” my collection of essays, columns, op-eds, and blog posts since 1989, at this link (or use this special page to get a signed copy). I just finished recording the audio version (pre-order on Audible or Google Play), so each piece will be available in my own voice. 

Here’s another excerpt — on the death of my beloved beagle, Dusty:

A reader writes:

I lost my beloved 19-year-old cat two months ago, and I lost his brother at 15-and-a-half in 2017. I read your blog post when you wrote it back in 2013 and was moved by it, but revisiting it now through the lens of my own grief, it is gut-wrenching.

For each of my cats, I wrote a lengthy tribute that I emailed to friends and family, and a lot of people replied that they’d never seen anyone write something like that for a pet. I remembering thinking, “I guess none of these people read the Daily Dish.” Anyway, even years later, you have my condolences, Andrew. My cats were, like you say, the only children I’ll ever have (and they are the only pets I’ve ever had). They were my constant companions, with me in every moment spent at home, which is most of my moments, and even more so in the past year. The world will never be the same without them.

New On The Dishcast: Wesley Yang

Wesley is a columnist for Tablet magazine, the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk, and a newly minted substacker. I’ve long admired him both for his essays and for his dry-as-toast Twitter feed. In this episode, we discuss the Great Awokening and critical race theory in great detail. You’ve be warned.

For three clips of our conversation — on Wes describing the core concepts of the successor ideology, on some ways BLM has arrested a multi-racial liberalism, and on how wokeness has captured corporate America, including top magazines — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.

That link also takes you to another light-hearted issue: Israel, in the context of our episode with Peter Beinart last week. The number of long, impassioned reader emails was probably our highest yet. Dissenters take Peter and me to task for our disillusioned views on Zionism and our criticisms of Netanyahu’s long rule. Readers also recommend a slew of potential pod-guests to balance out the debate. Stay tuned for more on the issue.

The Deepening Republican Degeneracy

The difficulty in understanding the current Republican party lies in its near unique combination of menace and absurdity. Dish alum Matt Sitman made this point on a recent Know Your Enemy podcast, and these two facets of Trumpism reached their apotheosis over six months ago, when a crowd of armed agitators, white supremacists, QAnon cultists, retired cops, and the mentally unbalanced marched to the Capitol and attempted to prevent by force the certification of the election of 2020.

The menace is and was very real. Watching the testimony of the Capitol police this week should remove any doubts on that score.

(Read the rest of that long post here. It concludes with the line, “And however much I despise the woke left, I will never capitulate to the evil of Trumpism.”)

Dissents Of The Week: Remember The Semiconductors!

Many smart readers are pushing back against my realist take on the depressing state of China, including this reader:

I must take issue with your statement that “Taiwan is not a vital US interest.” It absolutely shouldn’t be, but it is. The world’s most advanced semiconductor plants, the ones that can manufacture the most densely packed circuitry currently possible, are in Taiwan. Plants anywhere else in the world are two to three technological generations behind, except for one Samsung plant in South Korea.

Read the rest of that dissent and four others, including my responses to them, here. I have to say the huge volume of well-reasoned dissent on this has rattled me. I wanted to provoke and get some pushback, and this time, the pushback has made me reassess. Please keep the dissents and other feedback coming, on this issue and others: dish@andrewsullivan.com.

Also, a correction from a reader:

In your piece on Monsignor Burrill, you stated that Grindr is a “Chinese-owned app” — yes, it had Chinese owners for four years, and that ownership raised national security concerns for the U.S., but last year it was sold to a U.S.-based company.

The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts for if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today. One of them addresses my Dish colleague and conductor of the contest, Chris Bodenner:

I know people have told you this before, but it bears repeating: VFYW is so much more than a weekly contest. You provide a weekly excuse for me to step away from the daily hum of bad news in the outer world (i.e., the world outside my quiet, peaceful life here in Santa Monica Canyon) and travel the globe from my iPad, revisiting places I’ve seen up close, and discovering entirely new ones.

You’ve also created a big-hearted community of fellow armchair travelers, whose stories and observations add light and shadow to my understanding of the world. I found myself this morning reading aloud to my husband one particularly beautiful passage from this week’s post. The writer could have been Doug himself, describing a recent trip to Spain, which converted him from lifelong Italophile to full-blooded lover of Spain. That sublime guitar music alone!

Here we are in Spain in 2019, Dishheads one and all:

Anyway, just wanted to tell you how much this weekly spin of the globe means to us.

See you next Friday.