The Quiet Rage of the Responsible

After all these years, New York City remains America’s premier gateway to the world — a status that brings many good things, but also makes it a place where new variants of the coronavirus can spread fast. The good news is that the city appears to have weathered the rapidly receding Omicron wave relatively well. The hospital system was strained but didn’t break; according to city data, “only” 2,846 people died of Covid-19 between Dec. 5 and Jan. 22.

It is a very different story from what happened during the initial wave in 2020, when many observers suggested that New York was uniquely vulnerable because of its high population density and reliance on public transportation — a diagnosis that proved false as the coronavirus then spread across the nation.

This time, the city was able to cope much better, in part because a great majority of its residents are vaccinated, and they generally follow rules about wearing masks in public spaces, showing proof of vaccination before dining indoors, and so on. In other words, New Yorkers have been behaving fairly responsibly by U.S. standards.

Unfortunately, U.S. standards are pretty bad.

America has done a very poor job of dealing with Covid. We’ve had more deaths, as a percentage of the population, than any other large, wealthy nation, with the disparity even wider during the Omicron wave than it was before. Why? Because so many Americans haven’t behaved responsibly.

And I know I’m not alone in feeling angry about this irresponsibility, which has been encouraged by politicians and other public figures. There are surely many Americans feeling a simmering rage against the minority that has placed the rest of us at risk and degraded the quality of our nation’s life.

There has been remarkably little polling on how Americans who are acting responsibly view those who aren’t — the posturing and occasional violence of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers get all the headlines — but the available surveys suggest that during the Delta wave a majority of vaccinated Americans were frustrated or angry with the unvaccinated. I wouldn’t be surprised if those numbers grew under Omicron, so that Americans fed up with their compatriots who won’t do the right thing are now a silent majority.

Oh, and don’t tell me that how you behave during a pandemic is just an individual choice. I don’t claim any special expertise in the science, but there seems to be clear evidence that wearing masks in certain settings has helped limit the spread of the coronavirus. Vaccines also probably reduce spread, largely because the vaccinated are less likely to become infected, even though they can be. More crucially, failing to get vaccinated greatly increases your risk of becoming seriously ill, and hence placing stress on overburdened hospitals.

Also, think about the burden of proof here. You don’t have to have 100 percent faith in the experts to accept that flying without a mask or dining indoors while unvaccinated might well endanger other people — and for what? I know that some people in red America imagine that blue cities have become places of joyless tyranny, but the truth is that at this point New Yorkers with vaccine cards in their wallets and masks in their pockets can do pretty much whatever they want, at the cost of only slight inconvenience.

What this means, in turn, is that those who refuse to take basic Covid precautions are, at best, being selfish — ignoring the welfare and comfort of their fellow citizens. At worst, they’re engaged in deliberate aggression — putting others at risk to make a point. And the fact that some of the people around us are deliberately putting others at risk takes its own psychological toll. Tell me that it doesn’t bother you when the person sitting across the aisle or standing behind you in the checkout line ostentatiously goes maskless or keeps his or her mask pulled down.

Much of this behavior is political. Republicans, fed a steady diet of misinformation by partisan media — did I mention that Fox News has required its employees to disclose their vaccination status since last summer? — are four times as likely as Democrats to be unvaccinated, and far less likely to wear masks when grocery shopping. So America’s bad pandemic largely reflects a bet on the part of right-wing politicians and opinion leaders that they can reap benefits by making basic public health precautions part of the culture war.

The question is, isn’t there some way to make this cynical bet backfire? Many Americans are angry at the bad behavior that has helped keep this pandemic going. This quiet rage of the responsible should be a political force to be reckoned with.

I know that Democratic politicians are very reluctant to criticize any bloc of voters (Republicans don’t seem to have that problem). And it does make sense to loosen restrictions as Omicron fades. But I can’t see any reason not to go after politicians who encourage irresponsible behavior. Early indications are that Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s new governor, is already paying a price for his Covid policies relaxing past restrictions. Let’s hope we see more of that.

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