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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 11/25/20

The Holidays, the Coronavirus, and the Marshmallow Test

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Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas -- thanks to Pfizer (with BioNTech) and Moderna, these holidays are going to be the real marshmallow test for Americans, the chance to find out, at the end of this terrible year, what we're still made of. The famous Stanford psychology experiment has been an irresistible analogy for pundits ever since the coronavirus crisis began. Paul Krugman, for instance, wrote in the Times, in June, that measures such as imposing social distancing were much like offering a young child a marshmallow, but telling her that if she can refrain from eating it for 15 minutes she'll get a second one. "You have to be strict and you have to be patient, staying the course until the pandemic is over, not giving in to the temptation to return to normal life while the virus is still widespread," he wrote.

But back then the analogy wasn't quite right. Our behavior during the first wave of the pandemic -- which was pretty exemplary, at least in the cities that were initially hit hardest -- was less a matter of will power than of sheer terror. The marshmallow was poisoned; if you ate it, you might die. And, as the second and third waves came on, the analogy faltered in a different way: there was no 15-minute time limit. As the summer and then the fall ground on, it began to seem as if we were trapped in a never-ending saga, and each week one could feel oneself weakening.

Some of the choices made were baffling: did anyone really need to head to South Dakota to join with nearly half a million motorcyclists (as opposed to just riding a motorcycle, alone, which is about as COVID-safe an activity as it gets)? But birthdays and weddings are parts of being human, and it's hard to pass them up. Changing them around is possible -- our family hosted a wedding with six people in attendance, all of whom had quarantined for two weeks, and, if it wasn't what the bride and groom had imagined, it turned out to be wonderful in a whole different, intense way. (One comes, among other things, to really know and trust one's new in-laws.) Still, the desire for things to just be normal is a powerful force.

It's easy to place the blame for our weakening resolve on the current occupant of the White House -- a man so unable to control his vanity that he arranged a series of rallies that possibly contributed to the spread of the virus during his campaign. But the same trend was underway in Belgium, too, and in Italy, Peru, and other places safely beyond his writ. Even where I live, in Vermont, which has fared far better than any state, in large part because its levels of social trust are anomalously high, coronavirus numbers have begun to climb in recent weeks, with many of the cases linked to a hockey rink near the State House. (Fortunately, the state has had just five COVID-related deaths since July, and currently there are only three infected patients in the I.C.U.) Perhaps an indefinite suspension of normalcy turns out to be too much to ask: of hard-pressed restaurant owners and salon owners, and also just of people in general. Life in a high-consumer society has not, it turns out, been great preparation for delaying gratification. We want.

So the news from the pharmaceutical giants that they have vaccines in the works that seem to be more than 90-percent effective, and safe to boot, represents therapy not only for our immune systems but also our flagging will power. (On Monday, Oxford University and AstraZeneca announced that their vaccine has so far proved 70-percent effective on average in trials, and it is cheaper and easier to store than the Pfizer and Moderna versions.) Suddenly, the picture is different. Now it's not having to contemplate a world without Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and Christmas: it's having to contemplate a world without one Thanksgiving and one Hanukkah and one Christmas. Then, all signs indicate that, sometime next winter or spring, a pharmacist will stick a needle in your arm (twice), and things will start slowly returning to normal -- and our job is to get through to that singular event.

That should be doable. Anyone can understand that, in the holiday season of 2020, love of extended family and friends means staying safely at a distance. Anyone can gear themselves up for wearing a mask if the duration is measured in months that you can count on your fingers. The first health-care workers may get vaccinated in mid-December -- that's two or three weekends away. Give yourself 20 or so weekends without parties -- anyone can do that. With an end in sight, our job is to get everyone around us safely there: it was devastatingly sad that people died of COVID-19 last March, but such deaths would be tragic in a different way this March.

We have reason to feel pride in our initial response to the virus: moved not just by fear but by the heroism of health-care and frontline workers, we did the right thing for a while. We also have reason to feel shame: as a society, we couldn't figure out how to get everyone to take the simple measures necessary to protect the most vulnerable as the pandemic wore on. But now we have a tie-breaking opportunity to get it right. If you keep your mask on, there's no chance you're going to eat that marshmallow.

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
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