Learning to accept COVID-19

February 2022
Ben Shragge

There’s a subtle but important difference between acceptance and resignation.

Both acceptance and resignation involve acknowledging our lack of control over a situation. But if we’re resigned to a situation, we feel defeated and hopeless about it. If we accept a situation, we observe it objectively and move forward. Resignation asks, “Why did this happen to me?” Acceptance asks, “What should I do next?”
What does accepting COVID-19 mean? Acceptance doesn’t mean wanting to get infected. It means listening to experts like White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said that “Omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will, ultimately, find just about everybody.” Or Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who told Wired that “no one is going to leave the planet without COVID, just like no one leaves the planet without being infected with any of the other coronaviruses. The goal is to get it when you’re vaccinated, so it’s mild.” It means paying attention to the global president of Pfizer vaccines and to the nearly 90% of researchers surveyed by the journal Nature, all of whom say that COVID will transition to an endemic state.
Endemic means COVID will become a constant, predictable presence in our lives; unlike an epidemic, which occurs when there is a sudden, unpredicted rise in cases. COVID will become endemic when there is enough immune protection in the population, from vaccination and previous infection, to reduce transmission, hospitalization, and death to manageable levels; even as the virus continues to circulate. Endemic COVID will still be a cause of sickness and death (though much less as new treatments continue to emerge), but not a cause of lockdowns and societal disruption. 
In a Journal of the American Medical Association article, three of President Biden’s former top health advisors write, “The ‘new normal’ requires recognizing that SARS-CoV-2 is but one of several circulating respiratory viruses that include influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and more. COVID-19 must now be considered among the risks posed by all respiratory viral illnesses combined.” According to Jesse Bloom, evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, “SARS-CoV-2 will become a less serious problem and something like flu.” We don’t passively resign ourselves to the flu: we get (or should get) flu shots, we avoid contact with sick people, and we stay home when we’re symptomatic. But we also don’t put our lives and society on hold indefinitely with every new flu variant.
The flu is a serious illness—claiming roughly 650,000 lives per year—and COVID even moreso. For the unvaccinated, the elderly, and the immunocompromised especially, COVID can pose a mortal threat. Although I don’t fall into any of those categories, I certainly want to avoid infection. But accepting COVID also means looking at the data. At the time of this writing, based on current CDC numbers, if (or when) I become infected, there’s a 0.0009% chance I’ll require hospitalization. That number is for all vaccinated adults in the US aged 18–49; since I lack comorbidities, my real risk of hospitalization is likely even lower.
Again, acceptance is not resignation. Acceptance means acknowledging that I—and everyone else—will likely experience COVID eventually, so I should get vaccinated and boosted to ensure my case is mild. It means getting tested if I suspect infection, and staying isolated if I do, to protect the vulnerable. But it also means taking calculated risks and not waiting at home for the end of the disease, which will likely never come. (Only one human disease has ever been wiped out globally: smallpox.)
According to Jeremy Farrar, director of global health philanthropy the Wellcome Trust, “The key question—which the world hasn’t had to deal with at this scale in living memory—is how do we move on, rationally and emotionally, from a state of acute [emergency] to a state of transition to endemicity?” The science around COVID-19 is new, and its conclusions change rapidly. But the attitude of acceptance–our proper response–is as old as human wisdom. 
The words of the Book of Ecclesiastes are as true now as they were when written more than 2,000 years ago: “No one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.” Yet we must not feel resigned; rather, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” Death, and sickness, are inevitable; but our attitude towards them is up to us.
Ben Shragge is the HJN’s digital editor. He lives in Boston with his wife Yelena and their newborn daughter.