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19 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 4:30am

The US reopening is a moment of reckoning for a divided nation

As mandatory mask-wearing and dining restrictions are lifted, Americans’ wildly divergent experiences of the pandemic will be exposed. 

By Emily Tamkin

The United States is going back to, if not normal, then some semblance of it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on 13 May that, in most situations, vaccinated Americans do not need to wear facemasks. We may never reach herd immunity, but enough people in the US are vaccinated that restrictions on activities such as indoor dining are lifting. Teenagers can now be vaccinated. The end of the pandemic isn’t here, but it is in sight.

For some Americans, this more open, liberated state of affairs has been their experience for the past year. Power in the US is so divided between the federal, state and local governments that various parts of the country had completely different rules during the pandemic. Masks were mandated in Washington, DC, where I live; yet last September my husband, dog and I took a trip to North Carolina, where they were not. On our way to the sea one day, I heard a small child ask his mother why we were wearing face coverings. Picking up food to take out another evening, I stared, shocked, at a packed restaurant in which an elderly man was being escorted to a seat at the bar. It was hard to believe I was in the same world, let alone the same country.

And if many decisions were left up to states, still more were left to individuals. The US never had lockdowns like those imposed in the UK. Whether you dined indoors, whether you hosted people inside at your apartment, whether you chose to travel home for Thanksgiving or Christmas  all this was up to you. 

Now, however, as national guidelines loosen, we are likely to come face-to-face with acquaintances and colleagues who may have made very different choices about how far to protect themselves and others over the past 14 months. Thanks, in part, to social media platforms such as Instagram, we know that we did not all experience the same pandemic: New Yorkers who flew down to unrestricted Palm Beach in Florida had a different experience to that of my parents, who stayed huddled in their apartment, who in turn had a very different experience to that of those who delivered their groceries.

The issue isn’t so much that I judge people who were laxer in their approach to the pandemic than I was (though sometimes I do, just as I am sure that there are those who may judge me for driving to the beach in North Carolina). Rather, my concern is that we are all returning to “normal” from wildly different places. 

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In some cases, those were literally different states and municipalities with varying rules. But the differences were also dictated by socioeconomic and racial disparities. Those with lower incomes were hit harder by Covid, and a disproportionate number of black, Hispanic and Native people died of the virus. 

Differences also fell along the lines of partisan position. Young Republicans were significantly less likely to follow social distancing guidelines than their Democratic counterparts. Democrats, in turn, were more likely to wear masks than Republicans. 

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There was also a difference between those who had power and those who did not. There were the politicians who were busted for enjoying indoor dinner parties: the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, for example, was caught at a birthday dinner for a lobbyist at a posh restaurant while his state was under partial lockdown. 

What will these divergent experiences informed by the US’s pre-existing racial and socioeconomic inequity, paltry social safety net, and political polarisation  now mean for the nation’s sense of self?

Practically, I suspect widely diverging experience of the pandemic will make it more difficult for Americans to translate lessons learned into long-term policy change.

There’s a societal component, too. There are all sorts of theories as to why societies fall apart, but one idea, offered by Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut, is that they lose “social resilience”, or the ability to work together to achieve the same ends. Turchin believes this described the US for decades before Covid, as the population became poorer and less healthy, and elites amassed wealth and power. So although President Joe Biden now calls for unity, I wonder whether the US can operate as one society after the pandemic’s stark demonstration of division and inequality, or even if it ever did.

And there is also another, personal level, at least for me. We all went through a traumatic year, but our traumas were not the same. When I go out and see friends again, some will have lost loved ones to Covid; others will not. Some will have spent the past year abandoning caution; others didn’t. I went grocery shopping this past weekend and was helped by people who, unlike me, did not have the luxury of working from home. The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova had a line about the 1950s Soviet Union, as the gulags were emptied and people were allowed to come back home: “Two Russias are eyeball to eyeball,” she wrote, “those who were imprisoned and those who put them there.”

I do not mean to compare a pandemic to a labour camp or the horrific abuses inflicted by Josef Stalin, nor do I mean that a person who chose to eat indoors is equal to an informant. But Americans were careful with one another’s lives to varying degrees over the past year. How do we accept that, now that we’re living together again?

[See also: Why Joe Biden’s next 100 days pose a tougher political test]