Yesterday afternoon, the CDC saw fit to announce formally what people of sound mind have known for months: that Americans who have been fully vaccinated do not gain anything by slinging pieces of dirty cloth across their faces. The timing of the declaration — which was coupled with the news that the American Federation of Teachers was softening its ongoing ransom demand — suggests that The Science might be more susceptible to the influence of opinion polling than we have been led to believe.
The CDC’s affirmation was met with celebrations from the journalistic class and the White House, and with laughter from everyone else. In New York City and Washington D.C., the news may well have felt like a liberation. In the places where the CDC has long lost its influence – namely, most of the United States of America — it felt like a bad joke. After months of incoherence, the federal government had finally arrived at where Florida, Texas, and others had been by March.
Alas, those who had hoped that the long saga might finally be over were swiftly disappointed, for, as we have should have learned by now, COVID abhors a vacuum. Almost immediately, a new talking point popped up — this one in the form of a question. “Sooo,” Katie S. Phang inquired, “how does one tell the difference between a fully vaccinated person and a not vaccinated person?” On Morning Joe, Dr. Michael Osterholm echoed Phang, suggesting that “The next question is going to be, ‘How will we know if someone has been vaccinated?’ If you’re sitting close to someone at a restaurant or . . . in a theater, how are you going to know that they’re not just kind of fibbing?”
The answer to this, of course, is that you can’t know, but, that if you’re vaccinated, it doesn’t matter whether you know, because unvaccinated people can’t hurt you. Or, at least, that’s the answer if one assumes that the fear is medical in nature. But, of course, it’s not. It’s social. What Phang, Osterholm, and their many fellow travelers are really asking is, “Without masks, how will I know who to disrespect?” Evidently, the final transmutation of the virus has been from epidemiological marker to political totem.
The novelist Walter Kirn noted this transformation as pithily as usual. “As the masks go away,” he wrote, “a lot of Americans are going to miss the ability to classify, shame, and despise one another at first sight.” Kirn’s right. But he may have missed a wrinkle here: To wit, that certain people within our society will continue to wear masks simply so they are not mistaken for the sort of undesirable and unclean types who disliked wearing masks in the first place. In contemporary America, there is apparently only one thing worse than being unable to tell which are the good guys and which are the monsters, and that is being accused of being pro-monster oneself. Unfortunately for those who fear such denunciations, there’s no vaccine against that.