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Florida Chick-fil-A employee saves 'screaming' woman with a baby in would-be carjacking

A Florida Chick-fil-A employee thwarted a man's attempt to carjack a woman's car outside of the fast food restaurant.
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What we get wrong about being in love
Christina Animashaun/Vox; Getty Images Carrie Jenkins on what philosophy can teach us about love and heartbreak. Do we need a new vision of romantic love? When you think of romantic love in popular culture, you probably think of one of two things: limitless joy or unspeakable sorrow. Pick your favorite stereotype: obsessed teenagers who can’t leave each other’s side until some youthful misdeed leads to a cry-fest. Or maybe it’s the romance novel depictions of infatuated adults tangled up in passionate love triangles. The point is, even if we know real relationships are much more complicated than this, we’re still drawn to misleading models of romantic love. A new book by the philosopher Carrie Jenkins, called Sad Love: Romance and the Search for Meaning, wants to scrap these simplistic stories and replace them with something richer and more complicated. For Jenkins, the problem isn’t that we imagine love as either blissful or tragic; it can certainly be both. The problem is that we expect love to mean happiness. And if we’re not happy, we think we’ve failed. But Jenkins says we should recognize that the pain and difficulties of love are not just unavoidable — they’re actually part of what makes love worthwhile. So the way we talk about love should reflect this. There’s so much to chew on in this book, and ultimately what it offers is more than a theory of love. It’s a philosophy of life. That’s why I invited Jenkins to join me for an episode of Vox Conversations. Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Sean Illing You say that we tend to imagine love as a “failure condition.” What does that mean? Carrie Jenkins I say that if we are sad when we’re in love, it’s seen as a failure because love’s supposed to be about being happy ever after. If your relationship’s going well, we say we’re happy with the person, or we’re happy together. Happiness has just come to stand in for your love life going well. If we’re sad or if we’re angry, where does that leave us? Does that mean our relationships aren’t working? Does it mean we are not in love? Or even worse, does it mean we’re unlovable? What if we’re depressed? When I started writing this book, I was really depressed, and I was genuinely worried about how that left me for being capable of love and capable of being loved, because I didn’t think I was gonna be happy ever after. At some points, I had no hope of that even. I still thought I could love someone. I still thought someone could love me. So I wanted to know why we think of happiness as the success state for love and anything else as a failure condition. Sean Illing It’s either a Greek tragedy or just unspeakable bliss. And that seems a little too neat. Carrie Jenkins Well, it’s all extremes, right? We are either ecstatic, waking up every morning, singing. Or they don’t love you back or they’ve left you or something, and it’s a complete tragedy, drama. Nothing in the middle, nothing normal, nothing boring. Sean Illing And what you call “sad love” — how is that different from the myth of romantic love? Carrie Jenkins What I try to do is talk about a kind of love that has space for the full range of human emotions. That includes happiness, of course, but also sadness and anger. And also just the day-to-day, grayscale grind of getting up and going to work and not feeling particularly any kind of way about that, just doing it. Those are most people’s lives day to day. Most people are not particularly happy all the time. Most people are not particularly sad all the time, although some of us have experienced that. But what I want to say is all of these emotions are valid. All of these feelings are part of being human and being alive. And I think that means they should be part of love. I want to move away from defining love in terms of happiness, the way that that romantic myth tends to do, the “happy ever after” love. Now, sometimes, you could be sad for reasons that do indicate there’s a problem. And we can talk about that as well, but just being sad by itself doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your love life or with your life in general — sometimes being sad is the right response to the world. Sometimes the world is a sad place, you know? Sean Illing You point out that we seem so much more willing to accept sad parental love than we are sad romantic love. Sad parental love, as you say, is not seen as a failure. That’s just what it is, it’s just baked into the cake. Whereas romantic love, if you’re experiencing sadness, something must have gone wrong. And that’s therefore an indictment maybe of the whole relationship. Carrie Jenkins And this temptation to externalize it and say, “The other person is not making me happy.” That can be really toxic, too. Like it’s anyone else’s job to make you happy. That’s not necessarily what love is for or what love is about. One way I sometimes think about it is, I don’t think that the most valuable thing in my life is me being happy. Don’t get me wrong. I like being happy. I’ll take it if that’s available, but there are things that mean much more to me. And I think when people have children, we tend to understand this. You’re gonna have a rough time, but there’s something about that that means much more to you. And there’s something about that goal of raising your kids that is valuable and meaningful in a way that’s not really about happiness or your happiness. That is a useful way to think about this stuff sometimes. Sean Illing It’s a very existentialist book because it’s trying to map out a vision of love that’s truly compatible with freedom. I think that’s also what makes it very hard for people to practice in real life. We all want to love someone. We all want someone to love us. But the truth is that we often want someone to love us on our terms. And that’s problematic, if I’m reading you right. You write: “The other human being involved in such a relationship is presumably an autonomous agent with their own free will, not a prize you get for being a good person.” Carrie Jenkins I’d go so far as to question whether that can even count as love. Because it’s almost like you’re not really loving that person. You are just loving something that happens inside of you when you are around that person. If you are not working in a collaborative spirit with them on things that are meaningful to them and to both of you, then yeah, I’m not really sure that I would wanna say that’s love at all. There’s also another risk that’s close to that one, which is where we tend to see a partner as a kind of social status symbol. Like, “Look at me, I’ve been able to attract this person.” When we’re thinking about it in that way, that again can be incredibly toxic. Not only because we’re not seeing the other person — we are just thinking about how being with them is a benefit to us. Sean Illing I’m married; I’ve been with my wife for 11 years now. We’re in a pretty challenging stage of life. We have a 3-year-old in the house, and that’s its own kind of tornado. But like everyone, we’re — both of us — changing and evolving. Hopefully productively, as we get older, often in unexpected ways. Anyone who’s a parent knows that it changes you. And the question we’re always asking is, how do we allow each other to grow and change without imposing our own expectations, or our own desires, on each other? And it’s really hard. There are inevitable clashes. And my biggest worry is that we might allow ourselves to believe the lie that love consists in the loss of our own agency, our own freedom. And that’s not really true. It only appears true if you’re attached to an unhealthy vision of love. But at the same time, if you’re going to love someone in a way that respects their autonomy, that means you’re not in control of them, and they don’t exist just for you, to make you feel secure or whatever. And that means you have to let go. And that’s hard and scary. Carrie Jenkins Yeah. It’s scary. And I get it. I do. The thing about that is, if we don’t face that fact about needing to respect a partner’s own autonomy, it doesn’t make it not a fact. They still might grow and change in ways that pull them, maybe, away from us. We actually can’t stop that from happening whatever we try to do. But if we don’t look it in the face, we can kind of kid ourselves that it’s not true. So then, what’s gonna happen if we do that? I mean, maybe we’ll get lucky and nothing bad will happen. Another possibility, though, is we’re gonna be blindsided when that day comes because we’ve been ignoring the fact that our partner is their own person. We might even have brought it on by doing that, if we’ve been treating the person as though they’re just there for us. Sean Illing So if romantic love is this rich, dynamic thing that involves the entire spectrum of emotion, and it’s full of all these contradictory needs and desires, how do we know when it’s just not working? How do we know when it’s time to move on? Carrie Jenkins There’s a lot to be said about thinking, not necessarily just in terms of when to move on, but to think about how things can change. So an individual person grows and changes over time, and relationships, if they are healthy, will grow and change over time as well. Part of what worries me about the romantic myth is that we’re supposed to be just the same way we are now forever. That never happens. Everybody changes. And if your relationship doesn’t change, then it’s going to die. Anything alive is gonna grow and is gonna change. So what I’m sometimes tempted to think about is how a relationship to another person needs to change, rather than what needs to end or be removed. And I’m not talking here about if you’re in an abusive relationship, or if things have gotten bad enough that you’re being harmed. That situation needs to end. Don’t get me wrong. But if you’re just realizing you’ve grown apart from someone in certain kinds of ways, and you’re no longer really engaged in the same lives anymore — once we’ve stepped away from thinking there’s only one story for how a loving relationship can look, we’re at liberty to say, “Okay, well, how could our loving relationship look if we only overlap in this much of our lives instead of that much like we used to? And what does that look like?” And then you can have a conversation about, does it look like being friends? Does it look like being lovers who only see one another somewhat occasionally? Does it look like becoming non-monogamous? There’s lots of ways that relationships can change that we’re just kind of trained out of considering as options. I just wish we were more aware of those possibilities for ways that love can change and grow over time. Because actually I think the “happy ever after” mythology and its associated conception that romantic love never changes is the exact thing that leads to all kinds of heartbreak and unnecessary separations and devastating breakups. Sean Illing One of the things I most appreciate about the argument you make in the book is that you emphasize love as a verb, not a noun. We have this idea of love as a passive thing, that it’s about feeling something rather than doing something. But that’s wrong. Love is not something you have — it’s something you do. Carrie Jenkins It’s not something you just fall in, like a hole in the ground, right? You don’t just find yourself in a loving relationship one day. You can have some feelings, then, what do you do with that? Sean Illing You reference Victor Frankl quite a bit in the book, the famous Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps. And we both agree that he’s right when he says that the goal that makes life meaningful has to be something that points beyond ourselves. But for that exact reason, it means we can’t do this alone. So whatever form of love we aim at, it can’t just be about individual happiness. And part of figuring out how to love and, really, how to live, is knowing ourselves: what we value, what we want, what really matters. But if you accept this very existentialist insight — and I do; I think you do as well — if you accept that our identities aren’t fixed, that we’re making it up as we go, then you also have to accept that there’s no one-size-fits-all model of love. And what you need from people and what they need from you will constantly change. If the person you love or the people you love don’t recognize that, then you have to really ask yourself if that’s the kind of love you want, or if it’s even love at all. Carrie Jenkins Right. If they’re loving something that they had in mind that you might be, but it’s not you, then they’re loving something that really is inside of them all along, and not the self, the being that you are, which is a living thing that grows and changes. Sean Illing Or if they love a version of yourself that you’ve grown past. Carrie Jenkins Exactly. Right. They love a past time-slice of you. Sean Illing I think that happens a lot. Carrie Jenkins You’re right that Victor Frankl’s a huge influence here. He’s actually the reason for the subtitle of this book. So it’s Sad, Love: Romance and the Search for Meaning, and Frankl’s book was called Man’s Search For Meaning. But that’s why I chose that phrase for my subtitle: to respect what Frankl is saying about how you have to place meaningfulness and what you actually value at the center, and not happiness, in order to survive difficult situations.
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Hundreds Rescued in Florida as Carolinas Brace for Hurricane Ian
Joe Raedle/GettyRescue crews are desperately attempting to reach stranded people in Florida on Friday after Hurricane Ian wrought devastation across the state as the Carolinas braced for the onslaught of the historic storm.Ian left widespread flooding, catastrophic infrastructure damage, and an as yet unknown number of people dead after it made landfall in Florida on Wednesday afternoon as one of the most powerful storms in American history.At a news conference Thursday night, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the death toll was too early to confirm. “We fully expect to have mortality from this hurricane,” he said. He added that at least 700 rescues had already been completed throughout the state, though it remains unclear how many more people are still trapped by flooding. After surveying some coastal towns from the air on Thursday, DeSantis called the damage “indescribable.”Read more at The Daily Beast.
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End-of-life planning with loved ones can be hard. Here’s where to start.
Denis Novikov/Getty Images How to make sure you know what they want so you can honor their wishes without having to guess. Confronting the fact that our loved ones will someday die — that we all will — is one of the hardest parts of being human. Most of us don’t like to think about death, and as long as it doesn’t feel urgent, it’s easy to avoid discussing it with family and friends. Avoiding the reality, though, is risky. It increases the likelihood that we’ll be unprepared to make medical decisions when we need to make them. If we’re forced to make choices for an incapacitated loved one and don’t know what they want, we might agonize over whether or not we’ve made the right choice. Over the last few years, I’ve been talking to my parents about death, in part because of my dad’s health complications, which include a pneumonia infection that nearly killed him last year. In my family, almost no subject is taboo, including death; often, my dad is the one who brings it up. I know that he has advanced directives and long-term care insurance, and that he doesn’t want overly invasive medical treatment, especially if it’s just delaying the inevitable. I know that he would prefer a quick death to a drawn-out decline. I also know — as does he — that we can only plan for so much, and that most of us don’t ultimately get to choose how we die. Still, there’s a lot that canbe planned for, and it goes beyond estate planning and establishing a will (more on that below). The advances in medicine over the last several decades mean that people have more decisions to make about their end-of-life care than they ever have before. That makes it even more important for individuals to start considering what’s most important to them now. Not everyone feels ready to have these sorts of conversations with their loved ones. But waiting too long can create a different kind of anxiety. So I spoke with four experts — a doctor specializing in neurology and palliative care, a death doula, a bioethicist, and the leader of an initiative to help patients and their families discuss end-of-life wishes — about how to start having these crucial conversations. Consider what you hope to learn from a conversation, but don’t be too attached to an outcome It’s helpful to think about what you might want to have come out of an initial conversation. There’s plenty to consider when trying to prepare for end-of-life plans, and lots of online resources with different checklists. Most involve establishing a will, which lays out where a person wants their assets to go after they’ve passed away; another option is to establish a trust, which is a legal entity to which a person can assign a trustee to manage assets after they’ve passed. But for the first conversation, experts say, you shouldn’t focus on any of that. You want to keep it general and get a sense of where the person is at. What you’re really doing is gauging whether they’re open to talking about what they want from the end of their lives, what kind of planning they’ve already done, and how you can best support them in the process. If they seem open to it, you might try to find out whether they’ve appointed what’s sometimes called a health care proxy, or a health care agent, or a durable power of attorney. Different states and institutions sometimes use different terms to describe this person, but essentially, it’s someone who can make medical decisions for a patient if they’re incapacitated or unable to speak for themselves. You may also ask whether they’ve established an advance directive: a document that lays out a patient’s specific wishes regarding the use of medical procedures and devices like ventilators and feeding tubes. If you’re feeling nervous or worry they might not be ready to discuss these topics with you, understand that it’s fine — and probably even preferable — to initiate with open-ended questions and to prioritize being open to your loved one’s thoughts over trying to check things off a list. That might mean letting go of expectations and keeping things in the realm of the general at first. “It’s easier to talk about how you want to live your life through the end, as opposed to how you want to die,” says Kate DeBartolo, who runs the Conversation Project. On the Conversation Project’s website, there are guides to help people begin those conversations. They focus on introspective prompts and questions, such as, “What does a good day look like to you?” and, “What matters to me through the end of my life is ...” The idea, DeBartolo says, is to get people thinking about their values, which can help clarify what kind of say they’d like to have in their medical care. “We talk to people who want every measure taken — every trial drug, every curative treatment until the end — and other people who absolutely don’t want that,” says DeBartolo. There’s no right or wrong answer to those questions. “The emphasis is on living well through the end, and what matters to you, not what’s the matter with you. Making sure that those conversations don’t get too medical or legal right away can be helpful,” she says. Find an opening There’s no perfect way to start this kind of conversation, but there are ways to make it easier, says Jamie Eaddy Chism, director of program development for the International End-of-Life Doula Association. Sometimes, it helps to take the pressure off of loved ones by talking about yourself. “Something like, ‘I’ve been really thinking today about how I want people to remember me, and what I want people to do and say when I’m not here anymore,’” Eaddy Chism says. “Using yourself as an example disarms the person a bit because they don’t immediately have to think about their own situation. Then you can ask a question like: How would you want people to remember you?” Sometimes, pop culture provides an opening. Look for TV shows, books, or movies that everyone is reading or talking about that deal with death. They can be great conversation starters for families because they aren’t inherently personal but might invite further reflection — the season finale of This Is Us, which aired earlier this year, was a great conversation starter, Eaddy Chism says. There’s also Extremis, a short documentary on Netflix, that explores the tough choices that patients and family members have to make about whether or not to pursue more aggressive medical treatment near the end of their lives, and Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande’s 2014 bestseller about the challenges that advances in medicine have posed to patients, doctors, and caretakers. Context can be crucial, too. Cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs, prior experiences with the health care system, and even a family’s unique culture and communication style might play a role in how you start a conversation. Some family members might not like the term “death,” but may prefer terms such as “transitions” or “passing away.” “Understanding how language fits into the conversation is important,” Eaddy Chism says, “so you choose your wording in a way that invites people into the conversation.” Listen — and be aware of your preconceived notions A good conversation “starts with really listening,” says Alan Carver, who specializes in neurology and palliative care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “You really want to give the people that you care about the opportunity to share how they feel — and it can be hard to do if you’re doing all the talking.” Active listening means being open to any kind of response, even if it’s a dismissive one. You can’t force someone to prioritize a conversation if they share different values, and that’s important to listen for, too. “Different people respond very differently,” says Mildred Solomon, president of the Hasting Center, a bioethics research institute. “I know some people who are desperate for their children to hear their preferences, and they feel their children are refusing to talk about anything about the parent’s death,” she says. “On the other hand, I know people who don’t want to anticipate the possible downward trajectories and want to live in the moment. I respect that whole range.” It’s important, when talking to elder loved ones, not to try to predetermine how we think they might react. Adult children, for example, tend to think they know their parents well, including their weaknesses, their biases, and their anxieties. But it’s key to remember that our parents have their own complex experiences and histories, and no matter how well we think we know them, we still mainly know them in the context of child and parent, meaning there is a lot we might not understand about them. Going in with preconceived notions about how they’ll respond makes it harder to hear what someone wants — and makes it more likely that conversations will become unproductive. “Listening requires you to catch your assumptions as they come so you can remain present with the person,” Eaddy Chism says. “It’s about giving people the freedom to be discovered, and giving yourself permission to discover new things.” What if your loved one reacts poorly or refuses to engage? Apologize and try not to get defensive, says Eaddy Chism. She suggests you try something like: “I’m so sorry that this conversation made you feel like this. I know this was really uncomfortable, and I also know that I want to honor you. Can we try again later?” If they seem calm enough, you might try exploring why they reacted so strongly. Or you can redirect to something that might seem less scary, like: “I know you don’t want to talk about whether you want to be buried or cremated, but can we talk about hospital stays? What would you want in a hospital stay?” Still, she says, there’s only so much you can do with a family member who doesn’t want to engage. “Let’s be completely real in this, there are some conversations that we never return to, that people avoid and that we never have again. Don’t take that on as your own baggage,” she says. Pace yourself The benefit to having these conversations with loved ones early is that it ensures that the person’s wishes are respected and that decision-making is easier for loved ones. But it doesn’t need to happen all at once, nor is it something that families have to handle by themselves. If someone is sick, Carver says, their doctor can and should work closely with patients and families to identify how much information they want about the course of an illness, what their priorities are, and to help with decision-making. Sometimes it means letting a family know they should move a wedding date earlier, or take a planned vacation in the next calendar year rather than indefinitely putting it off. It’s also important to understand that while there may be several decisions to be made, there are resources available to help them do it; it’s not going to be easy or practical to try to do everything at once. “These are conversations to have over time,” Carver says. “It’s not like you sit down once and do it and then it’s over. It’s really over the course of a lifetime.” For more prompts and resources from the Conversation Project, click here. Check out INELDA’s website here. Even Better is here to offer deeply sourced, actionable advice for helping you live a better life. Do you have a question on money and work; friends, family, and community; or personal growth and health? Send us your question by filling out this form. We might turn it into a story.
All of This Will Happen Again
Recently, after a week in which 2,789 Americans died of COVID-19, President Joe Biden proclaimed that “the pandemic is over.” Anthony Fauci described the controversy around the proclamation as a matter of “semantics,” but the facts we are living with can speak for themselves. COVID still kills roughly as many Americans every week as died on 9/11. It is on track to kill at least 100,000 a year—triple the typical toll of the flu. Despite gross undercounting, more than 50,000 infections are being recorded every day. The CDC estimates that 19 million adults have long COVID. Things have undoubtedly improved since the peak of the crisis, but calling the pandemic “over” is like calling a fight “finished” because your opponent is punching you in the ribs instead of the face. American leaders and pundits have been trying to call an end to the pandemic since its beginning, only to be faced with new surges or variants. This mindset not only compromises the nation’s ability to manage COVID, but also leaves it vulnerable to other outbreaks. Future pandemics aren’t hypothetical; they’re inevitable and imminent. New infectious diseases have regularly emerged throughout recent decades, and climate change is quickening the pace of such events. As rising temperatures force animals to relocate, species that have never coexisted will meet, allowing the viruses within them to find new hosts—humans included. Dealing with all of this again is a matter of when, not if.In 2018, I wrote an article in The Atlantic warning that the U.S. was not prepared for a pandemic. That diagnosis remains unchanged; if anything, I was too optimistic. America was ranked as the world’s most prepared country in 2019—and, bafflingly, again in 2021—but accounts for 16 percent of global COVID deaths despite having just 4 percent of the global population. It spends more on medical care than any other wealthy country, but its hospitals were nonetheless overwhelmed. It helped create vaccines in record time, but is 67th in the world in full vaccinations. (This trend cannot solely be attributed to political division; even the most heavily vaccinated blue state—Rhode Island—still lags behind 21 nations.) America experienced the largest life-expectancy decline of any wealthy country in 2020 and, unlike its peers, continued declining in 2021. If it had fared as well as just the average peer nation, 1.1 million people who died last year—a third of all American deaths—would still be alive.America’s superlatively poor performance cannot solely be blamed on either the Trump or Biden administrations, although both have made egregious errors. Rather, the new coronavirus exploited the country’s many failing systems: its overstuffed prisons and understaffed nursing homes; its chronically underfunded public-health system; its reliance on convoluted supply chains and a just-in-time economy; its for-profit health-care system, whose workers were already burned out; its decades-long project of unweaving social safety nets; and its legacy of racism and segregation that had already left Black and Indigenous communities and other communities of color disproportionately burdened with health problems. Even in the pre-COVID years, the U.S. was still losing about 626,000 people more than expected for a nation of its size and resources. COVID simply toppled an edifice whose foundations were already rotten.In furiously racing to rebuild on this same foundation, America sets itself up to collapse once more. Experience is reputedly the best teacher, and yet the U.S. repeated mistakes from the early pandemic when faced with the Delta and Omicron variants. It got early global access to vaccines, and nonetheless lost almost half a million people after all adults became eligible for the shots. It has struggled to control monkeypox—a slower-spreading virus for which there is already a vaccine. Its right-wing legislators have passed laws and rulings that curtail the possibility of important public-health measures like quarantines and vaccine mandates. It has made none of the broad changes that would protect its population against future pathogens, such as better ventilation or universal paid sick leave. Its choices virtually guarantee that everything that’s happened in the past three years will happen again.The U.S. will continue to struggle against infectious diseases in part because some of its most deeply held values are antithetical to the task of besting a virus. Since its founding, the country has prized a strain of rugged individualism that prioritizes individual freedom and valorizes self-reliance. According to this ethos, people are responsible for their own well-being, physical and moral strength are equated, social vulnerability results from personal weakness rather than policy failure, and handouts or advice from the government are unwelcome. Such ideals are disastrous when handling a pandemic, for two major reasons.First, diseases spread. Each person’s choices inextricably affect their community, and the threat to the collective always exceeds that to the individual. The original Omicron variant, for example, posed slightly less risk to each infected person than the variants that preceded it, but spread so quickly that it inundated hospitals, greatly magnifying COVID’s societal costs. To handle such threats, collective action is necessary. Governments need policies, such as vaccine requirements or, yes, mask mandates, that protect the health of entire populations, while individuals have to consider their contribution to everyone else’s risk alongside their own personal stakes. And yet, since the spring of 2021, pundits have mocked people who continue to think this way for being irrational and overcautious, and government officials have consistently framed COVID as a matter of personal responsibility.Second, a person’s circumstances always constrain their choices. Low-income and minority groups find it harder to avoid infections or isolate when sick because they’re more likely to live in crowded homes and hold hourly-wage jobs without paid leave or the option to work remotely. Places such as prisons and nursing homes, whose residents have little autonomy, became hot spots for the worst outbreaks. Treating a pandemic as an individualist free-for-all ignores how difficult it is for many Americans to protect themselves. It also leaves people with vulnerabilities that last across successive pathogens: The groups that suffered most during the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009 were the same ones that took the brunt of COVID, a decade later.America’s individualist bent has also shaped its entire health-care system, which ties health to wealth and employment. That system is organized around treating sick people at great and wasteful expense, instead of preventing communities from falling sick in the first place. The latter is the remit of public health rather than medicine, and has long been underfunded and undervalued. Even the CDC—the nation’s top public-health agency—changed its guidelines in February to prioritize hospitalizations over cases, implicitly tolerating infections as long as hospitals are stable. But such a strategy practically ensures that emergency rooms will be overwhelmed by a fast-spreading virus; that, consequently, health-care workers will quit; and that waves of chronically ill long-haulers who are disabled by their infections will seek care and receive nothing. All of that has happened and will happen again. America’s pandemic individualism means that it’s your job to protect yourself from infection; if you get sick, your treatment may be unaffordable, and if you don’t get better, you will struggle to find help, or even anyone who believes you. In the late 19th century, many scholars realized that epidemics were social problems, whose spread and toll are influenced by poverty, inequality, overcrowding, hazardous working conditions, poor sanitation, and political negligence. But after the advent of germ theory, this social model was displaced by a biomedical and militaristic one, in which diseases were simple battles between hosts and pathogens, playing out within individual bodies. This paradigm conveniently allowed people to ignore the social context of disease. Instead of tackling intractable social problems, scientists focused on fighting microscopic enemies with drugs, vaccines, and other products of scientific research—an approach that sat easily with America’s abiding fixation on technology as a panacea. The allure of biomedical panaceas is still strong. For more than a year, the Biden administration and its advisers have reassured Americans that, with vaccines and antivirals, “we have the tools” to control the pandemic. These tools are indeed effective, but their efficacy is limited if people can’t access them or don’t want to, and if the government doesn’t create policies that shift that dynamic. A profoundly unequal society was always going to struggle with access: People with low incomes, food insecurity, eviction risk, and no health insurance struggled to make or attend vaccine appointments, even after shots were widely available. A profoundly mistrustful society was always going to struggle with hesitancy, made worse by political polarization and rampantly spreading misinformation. The result is that just 72 percent of Americans have completed their initial course of shots and just half have gotten the first of the boosters necessary to protect against current variants. At the same time, almost all other protections have been stripped away, and COVID funding is evaporating. And yet the White House’s recent pandemic-preparedness strategy still focuses heavily on biomedical magic bullets, paying scant attention to the social conditions that could turn those bullets into duds.Technological solutions also tend to rise into society’s penthouses, while epidemics seep into its cracks. Cures, vaccines, and diagnostics first go to people with power, wealth, and education, who then move on, leaving the communities most affected by diseases to continue shouldering their burden. This dynamic explains why the same health inequities linger across the decades even as pathogens come and go, and why the U.S. has now normalized an appalling level of COVID death and disability. Such suffering is concentrated among elderly, immunocompromised, working-class, and minority communities—groups that are underrepresented among political decision makers and the media, who get to declare the pandemic over. Even when inequities are highlighted, knowledge seems to suppress action: In one study, white Americans felt less empathy for vulnerable communities and were less supportive of safety precautions after learning about COVID’s racial disparities. This attitude is self-destructive and limits the advantage that even the most privileged Americans enjoy. Measures that would flatten social inequities, such as universal health care and better ventilation, would benefit everyone—and their absence harms everyone, too. In 2021, young white Americans died at lower rates than Black and Indigenous Americans, but still at three times the rate of their counterparts in other wealthy countries.By failing to address its social weaknesses, the U.S. accumulates more of them. An estimated 9 million Americans have lost close loved ones to COVID; about 10 percent will likely experience prolonged grief, which the country’s meager mental-health services will struggle to address. Because of brain fog, fatigue, and other debilitating symptoms, long COVID is keeping the equivalent of 2 million to 4 million Americans out of work; between lost earnings and increased medical costs, it could cost the economy $2.6 trillion a year. The exodus of health-care workers, especially experienced veterans, has left hospitals with a shortfall of staff and know-how. Levels of trust—one of the most important predictors of a country’s success at controlling COVID—have fallen, making pandemic interventions harder to deploy, while creating fertile ground in which misinformation can germinate. This is the cost of accepting the unacceptable: an even weaker foundation that the next disease will assail.In the spring of 2020, I wrote that the pandemic would last for years, and that the U.S. would need long-term strategies to control it. But America’s leaders consistently acted as if they were fighting a skirmish rather than a siege, lifting protective measures too early, and then reenacting them too slowly. They have skirted the responsibility of articulating what it would actually look like for the pandemic to be over, which has meant that whenever citizens managed to flatten the curve, the time they bought was wasted. Endemicity was equated with inaction rather than active management. This attitude removed any incentive or will to make the sort of long-term changes that would curtail the current disaster and prevent future ones. And so America has little chance of effectively countering the inevitable pandemics of the future; it cannot even focus on the one that’s ongoing.If change happens, it will likely occur slowly and from the ground up. In the vein of ACT UP—the extraordinarily successful activist group that changed the world’s approach to AIDS—grassroots organizations of long-haulers, grievers, immunocompromised people, and others disproportionately harmed by the pandemic have formed, creating the kind of vocal constituency that public health has long lacked.More pandemics will happen, and the U.S. has spectacularly failed to contain the current one. But it cannot afford the luxury of nihilism. It still has time to address its bedrocks of individualism and inequality, to create a health system that effectively prevents sickness instead of merely struggling to treat it, and to enact policies that rightfully prioritize the needs of disabled and vulnerable communities. Such changes seem unrealistic given the relentless disappointments of the past three years, but substantial social progress always seems unfeasible until it is actually achieved. Normal led to this. It is not too late to fashion a better normal.
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