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The Key to Understanding the TV Adaptation of The Underground Railroad
Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios What does freedom sound like? For Barry Jenkins, the answer started with the Earth. While filming The Underground Railroad, the new limited series adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, the director was caught off guard by a rumbling beneath his feet. The source was a nearby construction site, but to Jenkins, the vibration felt like a train was passing under him. It reminded him of how, as a boy, he had thought the historical Underground Railroad involved actual locomotives. Whitehead’s book, like Jenkins’s childhood mind, takes a similarly literal approach to depicting the network of secret passageways and safe houses that American abolitionists used to help enslaved Black people reach free states. The protagonist, Cora, discovers a real train system that aids her in her perilous escape from Georgia. Colossal and unpredictable, this Underground Railroad snakes beneath slaveholding states, and is carved directly into the land. By homing in on the ways the earth shapes the characters’ stories, Jenkins’s adaptation adds visual and sonic texture to Whiteheads’s magical-realist vision—anchoring it in the concreteness of place and highlighting overlooked truths about enslaved people’s experiences.If the obvious antagonist in any slavery narrative is the ruthless master, then the land is his most menacing sentinel. In films and TV shows that follow enslaved characters lurching toward freedom (such as Harriet) or being forced into servitude (such as 12 Years a Slave), the plantation is a site of unrelenting pain; the surrounding thickets serve primarily as a roadblock to freedom. (WGN’s Underground opened its first episode with its characters dashing through the hostile woods) Whitehead’s novel complicates that paradigm, and Jenkins’s adaptation brings the environment into even sharper focus. The series, which is streaming today on Amazon, doesn’t cast nature solely as a problem to be solved or a threat to be overcome. Rather, The Underground Railroad weaves all the complexities of the landscape—its terrain, its sounds, its emotional significance—directly into the story.[Read: Who wants to watch black pain?]Though at times wrenching, especially in the first episode, the series avoids gratuitous or heavy-handed visuals of blood, sweat, and tears—the usual signs of life in slavery narratives. Dense and expansive, it draws inspiration from fire, air, and fauna. “I wanted to convey a very beautiful relationship between our ancestors and the land,” Jenkins told me. Part of how The Underground Railroad shows that spiritual communion is via the intimate, light-filled cinematography famously associated with Jenkins and his cinematographer, James Laxton. Aesthetically, the series alternates between tableaus that evoke Romantic-era paintings and Impressionistic references.Take, for example, the whiplash of its first minutes: After viewers witness the agony of childbirth, they see Cora (played by Thuso Mbedu) standing in a dark swamp. The show cuts from this foreboding scene to one of her standing in a luminous field with Caesar (Aaron Pierre), a man enslaved on the same plantation. The golden-hour light frames their faces and the crops around them as he asks her to try and escape with him. In that moment, even as Cora balks, one can almost imagine the shimmering leaves and singing cicadas ushering the pair to safety. (To the show’s composer, Nicholas Britell, the insects’ chorus vitally captured the sound of the air and inspired the music: “There are pieces within the score … where you hear remnants of some of the cicadas,” Britell told me. “One of the pieces actually … is me playing violins and a prepared piano that almost sounds like cicadas.”)In moments such as the opening sequence, The Underground Railroad echoes the ethereal beauty of Kasi Lemmons’s 1997 classic, Eve’s Bayou. And like Lemmons’s story about a Lousiana Creole family’s mythic undoing, The Underground Railroad sometimes revels in the grandeur of nature to more eerie effect. By drawing on elements of fantasy, the series actually deepens the real-life atrocities it depicts. To Jenkins, there’s nothing contradictory about this approach. “Whether that’s representing Tuskegee experiments, eugenics, the sterilization of Black women, or the Oregon exclusionary acts, that had to be truth-based,” he said of the story’s references to other real-life horrors. “And yet it could be housed within this historical fiction or magical realism.”[Read: Eight films to watch right now, according to Barry Jenkins]In Whitehead’s novel, the improbable conceit of the train allows for commentary on the ubiquity of Black people’s exploitation. When Cora and Caesar descend into a subterranean railroad stop early in the book, she marvels at the “tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables.” She asks the station agent who built it. “Who builds anything in this country?” he responds. Whitehead’s descriptions of the labor required to construct this chimeric locomotive are rhythmic, almost imitating the syncopated carving of the land. So when the drilling near the show’s set unexpectedly recreated that feeling, Jenkins quickly sent an audio recording to Britell. “I always had this idea of the sound of this digging, the sound of this drill,” Jenkins said. “I just knew we’re going to film this scene, and then Nick and I are gonna take these pickaxes hitting this rock, and we’re gonna make music out of it.” The pair would come back to the same theme again and again while scoring The Underground Railroad: letting nature, in all its glory and danger, guide the story. “That was the starting point of that idea,” Britell said. “What would it mean to explore this elemental force of going downward into the Earth?”The first state Cora reaches after setting out from Georgia is South Carolina, which seems like a paragon of safety upon her arrival. But she and Caesar soon discover that a sinister experiment is under way, one that parallels some of the bodily horror that Black Americans have suffered throughout history. Jenkins and Britell don’t use cacophonous sounds to simply mirror the dread Cora begins to feel. (“If you’re seeing something that seems strange, then you’re hearing something strange, it’s almost too direct a relationship,” Britell said.) Instead, the duo experimented with the score to create dissonance and subtly distort viewers’ perceptions of South Carolina’s promise. “Those different states require different musical landscapes,” Britell said, explaining that in South Carolina, “there’s this almost fantastically lush orchestra sound there, which, to us, raised that kind of question mark.”The Underground Railroad is set in five states, and the episodes are titled after their respective locales. But the entire show was filmed in Georgia. “There’s a certain mythmaking or a certain lying inherent in that—we’re telling you you’re in Indiana, but we’re also in Georgia,” Jenkins said. The process of finding locations in Georgia to serve as convincing stand-ins for the show’s other settings was arduous; Jenkins joked that he can’t have seen every square mile of the state, but at times it felt as though he had. “We only didn’t touch the southwestern corner of the state,” he said. “Everywhere else, we filmed something in an effort to get this variation in the topography and the landscape.”The series uses that aesthetic meticulousness in service of its larger points about enslaved people’s humanity, including their unique knowledge of the land. Knowing the Earth under one’s feet well enough to map one’s way to safety is no small accomplishment. “So much of this for me was about being the kid hearing the words Underground Railroad and literally seeing Black people on trains underground—not imagining them, like, seeing them,” Jenkins said. “My granddad was a longshoreman. I would see him put his hard hat on, his tool belt, and his boots, and go to work every day. And I thought, Oh, people like him built the Underground Railroad.”At times, the show beautifully emphasizes the ways their bonds with the land persisted—and persist even now—beyond the specter of forced labor. The last episode features a weighty burial scene, one of the moments when Jenkins actually cried during filming. “This actor … at the conclusion of the scene, without my prompting, he got down on his knees, and he puts his forehead to the soil, and he inhales the earth,” Jenkins recalled. “And I thought there was just something so, so deeply spiritual about it. And there was something so visceral, this connection between this person and the Earth; it wasn’t corrupted by the condition of American slavery.”
Schools Must Fully Reopen in the Fall
Melissa Ann Pinney Schools must open this fall. In person. Five days a week. With the space and and health safeguards to do so. The American Federation of Teachers, which I lead, is committed to making this happen.School is where children learn best, where they play together and form relationships and acquire resilience. It’s where many children who otherwise might go hungry eat breakfast and lunch. Parents rely on schools, not only to educate their kids, but so they can work. Nearly 3 million mothers have dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic.[Read: Mothers’ careers are at extraordinary risk right now]Over the past 14 months, teachers have scrambled to redesign lessons and projects, and to create virtual field trips and labs to keep kids engaged and learning from afar. They are exhausted. They’re working longer hours, troubleshooting IT problems, and trying to connect with students despite the barriers—whether a computer screen or a plexiglass shield. School food workers kept meals coming, often feeding anyone in the community who needed it. Many school-bus drivers delivered those meals, along with schoolwork and internet hotspots so students could learn from home.All the while, educators have yearned to be back in school, with their students. They asked only for a safe workplace during this pandemic, and the resources they and their students need to succeed.Yet critics have scapegoated teachers and vilified their unions because of school closures during the pandemic, ignoring the extreme disparities among schools and blaming teachers for problems outside their control.Creating safe conditions in schools during a public-health crisis is not an obstacle to reopening classrooms; it is the pathway to going back, staying back, and building trust throughout school communities.We faced stiff headwinds. Donald Trump tweeted multiple times that schools should reopen but did nothing to help them do so safely. The Trump administration politicized safety and undermined science. As a result, from last April right up to January 19 this year, we were working to reopen schools in a climate of chaos, fear, and misinformation as the pandemic surged in wave after wave.Thankfully, the Biden administration changed course and is fighting the pandemic with science, truth, transparency, and, yes, money. We have experienced some bumps, of course—this is a once-in-a-century pandemic. But today an overwhelming majority of schools across the country are open for in-person learning, either full- or part-time.Vaccines have been a game changer. I hear this sentiment in educators’ voices and see it in our polling results. The fear that they will bring the virus home decreases the moment they get their shot. According to our data, 89 percent of our members are fully vaccinated or want to be. And this week we had more good news: The FDA authorized use of the Pfizer vaccine for 12-to-15-year-olds.Fully reopening is not risk-free. Public-health experts caution that unless many more people get vaccinated, we will not reach herd immunity against the coronavirus. But we can manage the threat by encouraging people to get a shot and following guidance from the CDC to prevent the spread of disease—which currently includes the layered mitigation strategies of masking, distancing, ventilating, sanitizing, hand washing, and regular COVID-19 testing.The fear of the virus isn’t gone. I see that in who is back in school and who is not. Some school staff members need accommodations to protect their health or that of someone in their household. And some families are still keeping their children at home, and considering doing so in the fall.The AFT, with the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and others, recently polled parents of public-school students across the country. Only 73 percent of all parents said they are comfortable with full in-person learning for their child this fall; only 59 percent of Black parents said this. But if the safety measures in the AFT’s reopening plan—layered mitigation, testing, and vaccines—are in place, the comfort level jumps to 94 percent of parents, including 87 percent of Black parents. Parents whose children’s schools are open feel more comfortable with in-person learning. The same is true of educators: The more they are in school with appropriate safeguards, the more they trust in-person learning.[Derek Thompson: The truth about kids, school, and COVID-19]Mitigation measures create trust. So does collaboration. So here’s an idea: Every school should have a committee of school staff, parents, and, where appropriate, students to plan for and respond to safety issues. These committees can conduct health-and-safety walk-throughs this summer, as we just did in Washington, D.C., at McKinley Technology High School and McKinley Middle School.Here’s another idea: Let’s integrate the best practices for both health and learning.One way is to link class size to the CDC’s revised guidance that, with universal masking, students should remain three feet apart in classrooms. For the most part, this will mean fewer students in each class—effectively aligning health and pedagogical best practices. Smaller class size has been shown to have a positive impact on academic achievement, suspension rates, and teacher retention. So why don’t school systems work through the summer to find adequate space in order to set up classes they can keep intact all school year? The constant reconfiguring of classrooms and classes is part of what has created such uncertainty during the pandemic.This change will also help end the untenable practice of simultaneous teaching. This juggling act requires teachers to essentially teach two classes, in two different modalities—one with kids in a classroom, and one with kids online—at the same time. This is not just unsustainable; it’s educationally disastrous.The AFT does a back-to-school campaign every year to engage with members. This year, we are dedicating $5 million to this effort. We’ll still connect with teachers and school staff, but we’ll also reach out to families and communities about the value of children returning to school in-person.From San Francisco to Kanawha, West Virginia; from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, to Minneapolis; from pre-K to higher education—we are developing programs and deploying activists to this campaign like we would for get-out-the-vote efforts.Members of some of our local chapters, such as the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, will go door-to-door, visiting students’ homes to talk about the health-and-safety and education programs in place at schools, and to encourage families to send their children back for in-person learning.In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers is advocating for schools to hold open houses for parents, to show them health safeguards and other resources, to answer questions, and to build trust.United Teachers Los Angeles and the Chicago Teachers Union are participating in COVID-19 vaccination events for students, families, and communities. The CTU is calling on the mayor and the school district to join its members over the summer in engaging with the majority of families that have opted thus far to stick with remote learning, and encouraging them to return.The AFT will operate “office hours” and clinics—designated times when affiliates and others can call in to discuss ideas and get technical support for returning to school. We hope that parents and superintendents will join us in this effort. And Share My Lesson, the AFT’s free online platform for education resources, will be a clearinghouse for best practices.And finally, we must recognize the opportunity we have to do more than just physically return to schools, as important as that is. We must also put in place supports to help students recover from the pandemic—socially, emotionally, and academically. And we must reimagine teaching and learning to focus on what sparks students’ passion, builds confidence, and nurtures critical thinking—so all children have the opportunity to thrive.The United States will not be fully back to normal until we are fully back in school. And our union is all in.
America Is Already on the Vaccine Honor System
If you have been fortunate enough to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, you also possess an essential, high-tech tool for proving your immunity to others.Just kidding, it’s a piece of cardstock. On the flimsy rectangle that all Americans get with their shots, doctors and pharmacists record dates of administration, vaccine type, and lot number. Some scrawl the information by hand with a pen; others apply a preprinted sticker. The cards offer no special marker to prove their authenticity, no scannable code to connect to a digital record. At three by four inches, they’re even too awkwardly sized to fit in a wallet. A mid-century polio-vaccine card doesn’t look too different from today’s COVID-19 vaccination records.Distributed by the CDC to those administering the vaccines, these cards are supposed to help recipients get the correct second dose, if needed, and offer a personal record, Jason Schwartz, a Yale public-health professor, told me. But they’ve taken on a considerably grander importance as pandemic restrictions have eased in the United States—especially now that the CDC has okayed vaccinated people going maskless in most places—because they’re the only thing available to all Americans that shows someone has been vaccinated. When you get a COVID-19 shot, the information goes into a digital record kept by the state where it was administered, and that’s the end of the road. The CDC does not hold records of individual vaccinations, and the White House has indicated that it has no plans for a federal database. (Neither the CDC nor the Department of Defense, which ran the Operation Warp Speed vaccine program, responded to my requests for comment.)This setup has made things complicated for businesses, employers, universities, restaurants, concert halls, airlines, and any other institutions that want to verify people’s vaccination status as the country reopens. It’s easy to say that customers, employees, or students need to be vaccinated, but it’s much more difficult to check that someone really is. A few states have created or promised more technical “vaccine passport” systems—usually smartphone apps connected to state databases—that could confirm people have been vaccinated against COVID-19. But many Republican-led states, including Texas, Florida, and Arizona, have opposed or even banned the implementation of any sort of vaccine verification system, mostly citing government overreach.The verification methods that places choose, if any, will certainly influence people’s behavior. At the same time, what requiring an immunization means is easy to misconstrue. America is simply past the point when any system could reasonably offer a foolproof, fraud-proof, universal method of confirming that someone has gotten a COVID-19 shot—flimsy cards and scattered apps included. Instead, we are bound to rely on the same method Americans have always had when it comes to proving vaccination: an honor system built on mutual trust.In many cases, the imminent future of vaccine verification will probably follow the model of a cashier who asks for ID when you present a credit card. In the same way that the cashier looks to see that it is an ID, or that the photo matches your face, a vaccination gatekeeper might glance at a piece of paper or your phone screen to check that some sort of documentation exists—and not, for instance, scan anything to confirm that the document is legitimate and that antibodies are indeed coursing through your tissue and blood.Especially in verification-shy states, things might not even go that far; citizens will “prove” their status by simple attestation. But for any place that decides to require a vaccine card or passport for entry, the cashier method won’t validate much either. Given the political animus and misinformation surrounding COVID-19 policies of all kinds, it’s no surprise that some opponents of vaccination realized they could abuse that trust by buying or stealing blank vaccination cards. Earlier this month, the owner of a bar in California was charged with selling fraudulent cards. In The Washington Post’s coverage of the arrest, a security expert estimated that forgery “is more widespread than we even think at this point.”Digital vaccine-passport systems overcome vaccine cards’ awkward physicality, but just as hygiene theater turned cleaning into a false sense of pandemic security, vaccine passports risk becoming verification theater, especially if deployed in only a small number of states. In March, New York launched Excelsior Pass, a free app that claims to provide secure vaccine verification for entry into venues such as theaters and stadiums. Hawaii plans to introduce a system backed by the same company, and California has adopted a policy that seems to require a similar app. Excelsior Pass does plug into state databases to produce a screen or printout with a barcode that can be scanned by another app. But this is all limited by the fact that the database records only shots administered in New York State. And the app isn’t magic; not much is stopping someone from sharing their own screenshots or printouts with someone else.[Read: A better solution than laminating your vaccine card]When I asked an Excelsior Pass help-desk agent how a business could confirm that a pass actually belonged to its holder, she said it was the first time anyone had asked that question. “As far as I know, there is no way,” she said. A vaccine-scanning agent could check the pass against a holder’s ID, but only a name and date of birth appear on the Excelsior Pass anyway. The New York governor’s office told me that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are downloading Excelsior Pass each day, and that “passes must be verified against a photo ID.” In a high-traffic environment such as a stadium or even a restaurant, though, it’s hard to believe that everyone will take the time to do so.None of this is to say that lying and forgery will necessarily be as big of a problem as some coverage has suggested. Millions and millions of Americans have received a shot or are eager to get one. And just because faking it is possible doesn’t mean that most people who oppose vaccinations will happily leap into deceit. (In March, the FBI warned that producing or purchasing vaccine cards is illegal.) But any practical consideration of COVID-19 vaccination requirements in the U.S. has to contend with the fact that hopes to require vaccinations in the first place only go so far.Other countries may not be better off. Some have devised a variety of high- and low-tech solutions to provide universal vaccination verification, including a European Union–wide digital pass and printable QR codes in Israel, which have limitations similar to those of the U.S. systems. But America’s scattershot, state-specific approach makes meaningful widespread verification all the more a fantasy.Don’t we confirm vaccination status all the time, and for much less scary diseases? No, we do not. Vaccine mandates can effectively increase immunization rates, but mandate has mostly meant encouragement, not requiring demonstrable evidence. Vaccine verification in America has been janky from the start. Vaccinations have always been recorded primarily on paper, and evidence of immunity has always been based largely on trust.Real verification of any vaccination remains, at the most basic level, pretty difficult. Every state maintains an immunization registry that records new vaccinations, but no matter the state, these systems record only vaccines administered in the state. If you move, your new physician could record your earlier shots on a paper record, but not an electronic one. In this way, digital vaccination records are typically less complete than paper ones. And nearly all states allow citizens to opt out of the vaccine registry anyway.Citizens usually can’t access their own records, and when they can, the process is not fast or easy. In some states, only medical offices can access digital vaccine records; in others, select agencies such as child-care facilities and schools are authorized to access them. Many companies are planning to mandate COVID-19 vaccines, which is perfectly legal under certain conditions, but these mandates can’t amount to much more than asking employees if they’ve gotten a shot. Even then, exemptions would likely be in place for reasons of disability or religion—and medical inquiries of certain kinds might run afoul of the Americans With Disabilities Act.The most common reason to need an immunization record is to enroll in school. In Georgia, where I live, new students must file a document, Form 3231, before they can register. A physician is supposed to fill out this form, which amounts to little more than a series of blank fields for various immunization dates. An FAQ from the Georgia Department of Public Health indicates that “only health departments and physicians licensed in Georgia can obtain blank immunization certificates,” presumably to control access to this official record in order to prevent misuse. But when I performed a simple Google search for Form 3231, the third result linked to exactly that, a blank immunization form. If someone wanted to, they could easily falsify the dates and claim inoculations they hadn’t really gotten. (The Georgia Department of Public Health didn’t respond to my request for comment.)[Listen: The crime of refusing vaccination]One big difference between an immunization record and a COVID-19 vaccination card is that the official record is signed by a health-care provider. Forging this signature could amount to committing a felony in all 50 states. This appears easy enough to get around: Some vaccine-record fraud has been perpetrated by complicit doctors. But also, the data on these forms might hardly be verified in the first place. Schwartz, whose research at Yale focuses on the history and public policy of vaccination, suspects that these documents are checked to see if they look like medical records, but not for much else. “If it passes that very low bar of looking plausibly accurate, I suspect that is considered good enough,” he said.Even international verification faces similar limitations. In the case of vaccines recommended or required for travel abroad (such as those for yellow fever, typhoid, and rabies), most countries rely on the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, provided by the World Health Organization. That instrument is—wait for it—a yellow card with written inoculation records accompanied by medical stamps or signatures.America’s resolutely patchwork approach to vaccine verification is not a failure of imagination. Schwartz noted that the technical hurdle is relatively surmountable; given verifiable vaccine billings to Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers, along with the state databases, you could get a pretty comprehensive accounting. Eventually, in theory, some aggregation of state immunization registries could make the fantasy of a countrywide vaccine passport a reality.But the U.S. has already chosen a different path. Introducing a universal vaccine passport would not change the cultural, psychological, and civil-libertarian resistance to a national medical-certification system. When vaccination becomes an amorphous, cosmic battle of national political division, getting people to accept inoculations—which is the goal—becomes even harder. The existing recordkeeping system has worked well enough over the years, and so it will likely persist: Scribbles on sheets of paper, some signed and some not, will corroborate protection. COVID-19 vaccination cards will give way to … more cards or papers, probably. Perhaps signed by a doctor this time. Perhaps with a barcode that systems such as Excelsior Pass might read. The honor system will persist too, like it does with most documents and identification.If you’re a vociferous vaccine advocate, this can easily sound disheartening. But that shouldn’t necessarily be the case. Remember that mandates have mostly meant strong, official encouragements, not verifications. On the one hand, it’s understandable to be wary of going much further: In China, COVID-19 tracking has expanded the nation’s already concerning use of health data for citizen monitoring. On the other hand, the solutions currently on offer in the U.S. overlook the fact that the main hurdles to vaccine mandates are not technological. The whole vaccination apparatus just hasn’t sought this level of verifiable confirmation before.But verifiable confirmation is exactly what vaccine passport implies. That makes it a wrongheaded way to understand vaccine record-keeping. Vaccination records aren’t even trying to be secure, official documents, like driver’s licenses and passports. Instead, they are more like paper contracts—documents whose contents become “true” given a medical professional’s imprimatur or review. A “passport” suggests a universal infrastructure for recording, documenting, retrieving, and analyzing changing vaccination information in real time. That is not our actual situation.For Schwartz, the core challenge for vaccines as a part of public health doesn’t have much to do with verifying inoculations. Rather, it has to do with striking an appropriate balance between carrots and sticks. Without widespread support for vaccination, and the COVID-19 vaccines in particular, the ability to enforce its uptake will fail. “I worry about passports and permission to travel becoming the focal point,” Schwartz said, “when we really need to focus on helping to sell these vaccines.”To do that, it might be better to reframe what a “vaccine mandate” really means. Instead of an impersonal, technical ratification infrastructure, it boils down to asking people if they would please get vaccinated, and trusting that they have if they say they have. To accomplish that goal, Schwartz has a decidedly low-tech suggestion: “Focus on the preexisting communities where we have relationships and bonds.” Workplaces and schools, where people are already bound to others in an organic way, are a good place to start. According to Schwartz, if an organization you trust, such as your office or school, leads the charge from the grass roots in encouraging its community to get shots, more people are likely to do so, even if the documentation is imperfect. Extra incentives, whether in the form of free donuts, cash lotteries, or mask-free living, can also help. From there, the immunity conferred by a commitment to act safely among schoolmates or work colleagues would carry over to restaurants, airplanes, and concert venues. It’s more manageable than a top-down system of compliance, to which Americans respond poorly.No matter the appeal of a universal certification that would give businesses, airlines, theaters, and the public who uses them peace of mind about the vaccination status of those around them, Schwartz considers the cultural barriers to implementing such a system “insurmountable.” Establishing and relying on real mutual trust among citizens shouldn’t feel silly or foolish. That is not the current condition in America, to be sure. But we would be remiss to give up its possibility or dream of replacing it for good with an app.
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Re-openings in Europe, coping with COVID-19 in India, kayak racing in Italy, artistic swimming in Budapest, an elephant seal pup in California, a candlelight commemoration in Prague, a skateboard park in Texas, a Victory Day parade in Russia, protests in Colombia, and much more
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The Atlantic Daily: The Beginning of the End of America’s Pandemic?
Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.The United States coronavirus outbreak seemed to enter a new phase today with the CDC’s announcement that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors or socially distance—with a few key exceptions.“Coming from an administration that has preached caution … the words sounded like a surprisingly abrupt declaration of freedom: Did the CDC just end the pandemic?” our staff writer Russell Berman wondered.We caught up with Katherine J. Wu, a staff writer who has been covering the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, to discuss what this not-totally-unexpected-but-still-surprising development means. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.Caroline Mimbs Nyce: What does today’s announcement say, if anything, about where we are in the pandemic?Katherine J. Wu: This does not mean the pandemic is over, or even close to it, especially when we take the global perspective. But it does say we know a lot more about our vaccines and how powerful they are, and I think that means we’re at a point in the pandemic where we’re feeling good about the tools we’re using to combat it.That said, it’s still possible to make a misstep right now, and we’ll need to be careful to avoid that.Caroline: Can you tell me, in ultra-practical terms, what the announcement means? If I’m fully vaccinated, can I walk into a crowded grocery store with my mask off right now?Katie: In theory, yes. The CDC says, pretty much verbatim, that you can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic, without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart.The caveat on that is: There will still be exceptions, depending on local laws. If your grocery store has a sign on the door that says, “Please put on a mask,” you’ll still have to follow that. The new recommendation does not apply to health-care settings or public transportation. This is not carte blanche to rip your mask off.Caroline: How are businesses going to be able to tell if someone is vaccinated or not?Katie: This is really tricky. We can’t look at someone and figure out if they’re vaccinated. It does kind of open the door for bad actors to just say, Hey, I’m not gonna wear my mask. I’m not vaccinated, but you can’t tell if I am.Caroline: Does the timing of the announcement feel right to you, considering where we are in the pandemic?Katie: I feel a little bit mixed about this. I do think there is a lot of science to back this idea. But given the sort of sociological, cultural, and health-equity contexts that are the backdrop here, there are a lot of caveats.We have to keep in mind that only a minority of Americans are fully vaccinated. There are places where people still can’t access vaccines, even if they really want them. And there are people who are refusing to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons. And that’s left us in a pretty tricky spot. The rate of daily vaccinations has actually gone down in the past few weeks.In some ways, it feels like a slightly odd time to be unveiling this guidance. But on the flip side of that, I do see an argument for this change possibly being a motivating factor. A lot of public-health officials have been trying to motivate vaccinations as of late, by saying “Here, look at all the things you can do once you’re fully vaccinated.” This may push some people over the edge. That would be wonderful.Caroline: After a year of mask wearing, my gut reaction was: This just feels wrong. How can I and other Americans make sense of which caution is justified—and which is just latent trauma from the past year?Katie: It’s really complicated. This guidance was probably going to happen eventually—or at least some version of it. The key here, and something that I’ve written about before, is that what the CDC is now allowing—or perhaps even encouraging—fully vaccinated people to do, are options, not obligations. If anyone is uncomfortable with this rule, no one is going to take your mask off for you. You control those ear straps.There are certain subgroups of people who have gotten their shots who may still want to be extra careful, including vaccinated parents of really young kids who aren’t yet eligible for vaccinations, or people who are taking immunosuppressive drugs or who are otherwise immunocompromised and for whom vaccines might not work as well, which is something else I’ve written about.Guidance like this can sometimes paint with too broad a brush, because we’re thinking about the average or typical case in which a vaccine works in a person whose immune system is super well-equipped to handle it. But we do need to keep in mind that there are still vulnerable people everywhere around us, even people who have gotten their shots.Caroline: That leads to my next question: Who is getting left behind here?Katie: Not everyone is yet able to get a vaccine, for example, really young kids. There are people who have very legitimate medical exemptions to being vaccinated. Everyone should think about their own situation and act accordingly.And we should keep in mind that this is great for the U.S., but the world is not vaccinated yet. There are countries where the vaccine rollout is really slow, and sputtering. We’re not safe until all of us are safe.The rest of the news in three sentences:(1) Israeli-Palestinian violence continues to escalate. (2) Vaccinations are now open to American kids ages 12 to 15, which should bolster the country’s chances of reaching herd immunity. (3) California Governor Gavin Newsom is fighting off a recall attempt, thanks to a state law that, one writer argues, doesn’t make sense in a partisan political climate.Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity:Plan for life after the coronavirus. “During pre-pandemic life you might have said, ‘I like my job,’ and ‘I like my social life,’” our happiness columnist Arthur C. Brooks writes. “Maybe you meant it, and maybe you didn’t.”Write out a list of the things you want to keep in the new normal—and those you want to leave behind.A break from the news:Is Brett Kavanaugh out for revenge?Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.
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