The politicization of the pandemic has been accepted as the reason our pandemic policies have failed. The way forward is not likely to be via some until-now undiscovered middle path. Perhaps by appreciating this polarity, rather than assuming it will lead to dysfunction, is the way forward? This polarity may have allowed us to find – via a tortured and cantankerous path – a compromise between lockdown and “let ‘er rip.” Unfortunately, by not listening to each other, this solution ended up hurting those who were not given a seat at the table. Respecting each other and listening intentionally requires recognizing natural functions for what they are, and working with them – instead of against.
Polarization serves as an organizing function in chemistry and biology, allowing polar molecules to form bonds, magnets to work, electricity to flow, molecules to cross cell membranes, and nerves to convey signals. Polarity governs the movement of materials and information, and even our reflexive response to environmental stimuli – fight or flight. The sympathetic nervous system gears us up to respond to danger by increasing breathing and heart rates, widening air passages, and restricting gut movements. The parasympathetic resets these internal control panels to a resting state. People respond to stressors differently, and these responses may have both genetic and cultural correlates. In chemistry, likes-dissolves-likes describes how polar and nonpolar molecules dissolve best. Similarly, the polarity of power may draw people together who share a particular perspective on how society should be organized. The response to the pandemic exhibited by the political parties is not a symptom of politics so much as a reflection of a shared philosophy about society, the role of government in caretaking, and the responsibilities and freedoms of individuals.
As omicron recedes over the next few weeks, the political nervous system will gradually reset as the parasympathetic signaling pathways help the body recover from crisis. Although some suggest that America will never be a healthy democracy as long as it maintains a two-party system, I disagree. By the 1790s, American political discourse fell into a polarity: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Although contentious (and endlessly entertaining for the world to watch), this tension may well preserve our freedoms in times of crisis. During this time of crisis recovery, intentional reset would be helpful. We should be wary of dogpiling on those who are modifying their positions or sharing how they have navigated very personal concerns. People who have held policy positions in polarity should instead reach out to each other by intentionally building relationships with those who have held a different position on mandates for masking or vaccination. Practice respectful discourse, create opportunities for structured conversation. These skills are not only important to model for future leaders, they are vital in the next disaster response. We must create policies which reflect a broader awareness of how they differentially affect groups of people.
What has failed is not the natural polarization of our political system, but rather an ill-conceived one-size-fits-all approach. If the two poles had respected their differences and listened, we would not find ourselves trying to ride a hybrid bike on a single-track trail. Hybrid bikes don’t do either road or mountain well. (But get around quite well in a busy city!) But how does this work in real life? How do we put the chain back on or fix the tire?
One of the brightest days last weekend was talking to Gregory Travis, but it started – to my horror – with an outburst directed at me after I Tweeted an article about robust and durable immunity in children. The researchers in Germany followed households for a year and measured antibody levels in adults and children. They found that – even with asymptomatic infections – children developed robust immunity which lasted longer than the adults. The article touched me intellectually and emotionally. Worry began to melt away, and I actually felt some guilt for the strict precautions and restrictions from their normal lives which children had endured for 22 months. We have collectively worried about unmeasured harms from the emphasis on safety among kids while adults go to concerts and restaurants, unmasked in many places.
Toward the end of my exuberant post, I inadequately expressed these sentiments and caused Greg to worry that I was proposing intentionally infecting children to protect adults. I tried to restate my views, unsuccessfully. What I was trying to say was more like this: all along these precious children have lost so much but we just did our best with what we knew at the time. But now couldn’t we do better? Couldn’t we allow them to live, confident in their innate immune strength? I felt horrible about the misunderstanding, worried about fueling the antivaxx movement, and reached out to Greg personally. He made time to chat with me by phone for about an hour. It really touched me that he would invest that time, and we found common ground in understanding our mutual losses during the pandemic, and the things which bring us joy – for which we’d invest “risk capital,” as Greg puts it. I value his sincerity so much. I interpret things differently now. Instead of an attack – as Twitter often feels – I tend to view snarky posts as a person’s natural skepticism or worry coming through as questions. So much gets lost in a Tweet.
Thank you, Greg, for your time and for sharing a bit of your pandemic experience with me. It is a gift, and I wish you and your son so much joy. Here’s Greg’s take on our talk.