The World We Want to Live in After COVID

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    In 1909, the French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep published a book called “The Rites of Passage.” In it, he explored the rituals that cultures use to transition people from one stage of life to the next. Birth, puberty, graduation, religious initiation, marriage, pregnancy, promotions, the seasons—we’re always on the threshold of one phase or another. How do communities shepherd individuals from the pre- to the post-?

    Van Gennep argued that certain universal principles underlie rites of passage across cultures and eras. First, there’s the “pre-liminal” phase, in which “rites of separation” detach individuals from their earlier thoughts, feelings, and perspectives: the Old You dies. Next comes the “liminal” phase, a volatile interregnum that’s simultaneously disorienting and ambiguous, destructive and constructive, during which “rites of transition” open up the possibility of a new and different future. Finally, in the “post-liminal” phase, the “rites of incorporation” allow one to reënter society somehow changed. A New You is inaugurated. “Life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be reborn,” van Gennep wrote. “It is to act and to cease, to wait and to rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way.”

    Van Gennep’s observations were a landmark in the nascent field of anthropology. “Elements of ceremonial behavior were no longer the relics of former superstitious eras,” the anthropologists Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf later wrote, but “keys to a universal logic of human social life.” In the century since, scholars have applied van Gennep’s framework not just to individuals but to societies in times of turmoil and transformation. Famines, wars, political revolutions, economic downturns, civil-rights movements—societies, too, move from one way of life to another, often experiencing intense periods of renunciation, restructuring, and rebirth.

    2020, when the pandemic began, was a pre-liminal year—a headlong, vaccine-less descent away from normality and into calamity. We were torn from our established ways, undergoing separation, loss, and upheaval. 2021 was a liminal year—neither here nor there, not quite normal but not wholly abnormal, either. The inauguration of Joe Biden, the widespread availability of vaccines, and the return of weddings, dining, travel, and sports all coexisted alongside vaccine holdouts, breakthrough infections, new variants, booster shots, and regional surges.

    Today, Omicron might make it feel as though we’re still squarely in the liminal phase. But, in fact, we may soon be tipping into a post-liminal paradigm. Omicron’s extraordinary contagiousness—combined with rising vaccination and booster rates—could mean that, in the coming months, nearly all Americans will have some level of immunity to COVID. Repeat infections and breakthrough cases will still occur, but, as our individual and collective immunity broadens, these will become milder and less disruptive. The influenza pandemics of the twentieth century each lasted around two years; now, twenty-one months into our battle with the coronavirus, Omicron is accelerating what could be this pandemic’s final chapter. It’s becoming possible to ask, and perhaps answer, some broad questions: Where will we end up in our attitudes toward ourselves and the social web in which we live? Who will we be on the other side of our transition?

    The coronavirus crisis is first and foremost a health crisis, and many of the most obvious changes in our attitudes have to do with health. Some of us have come to reflect more regularly on our age and medical conditions. We’ve gained familiarity with obscure scientific jargon, from PCR tests to mRNA. We meditate on the trade-offs involved in social events, examine the threats we pose to others (and vice versa), and judge people for their choices. Americans differ hugely on what to think and do about all this—the behavior of people in one community can seem unfathomable to those in another—but, at least for now, health has shifted from a narrow individual consideration to a more expansive, social one. Going to work, attending a concert, hosting a dinner party, boarding a flight—if you have a cough, a fever, or just the sniffles, these activities now carry an ethical dimension. Will this remain true after the acute threat of COVID-19 has subsided? We may return to inflicting colds, flus, and various G.I. bugs on one another—or, possibly, we’ll adopt some version of the physician’s oath to do no harm.

    The sense that making others sick is an action we’ve taken—and that, conversely, it’s within our power to avoid becoming agents of contagion—reflects a more general paradox of the pandemic. Since COVID arrived, we’ve been both powerless and empowered. Many aspects of our lives have been changed by events beyond our control; at the same time, we have sometimes been pushed to make consequential decisions and chart our own course. Over the past two years, for instance, Americans have quit their jobs in record numbers; in some cases, they’ve been forced to do so—perhaps by medical vulnerability, or unprecedented disruptions in schooling—while, in others, the pandemic’s chaos presented an opportunity to reëvaluate priorities. Regardless, faced with historical circumstances, they made big changes. In this crisis, as in many rites of passage, we don’t just passively recite our lines; we write them, taking vows that may reverberate for decades.

    One of the questions we face now is whether we can make such changes on a social level, in addition to an individual one. The pandemic’s school disruptions are the result not just of a novel virus but of years of underinvestment that have yielded underpaid teachers, crowded classrooms, and poorly ventilated buildings. We’ve seen the same pattern in many aspects of our pandemic experience. Decades of investment in basic science allowed American scientists to race from genomic sequencing to an effective COVID vaccine in less than a year—but, during the same period, a public-health system that had been neglected for decades hampered our ability to contain the virus at every turn. We’ve made real changes in our lives. Can we make them in our society, too, building capacity so that our institutions can be more resilient and flexible?

    The pandemic has posed similar questions for the world as a whole. COVID-19 struck during the seventy-fifth anniversary of the creation of the United Nations, and arrived at a moment characterized by a sharp rise in nationalism and a broadening skepticism about the international arrangements that have governed since the Second World War. Even before the virus, the multilateral system of international coöperation was fraying. After the 2008 financial crisis, Americans had grown increasingly suspicious of globalization and frustrated by their leaders’ failure to address its consequences: inequality, job displacement, social atomization. Now the coronavirus has shown that globalization moves not just goods and people across borders but pathogens, too.

    In March, the National Intelligence Council released a report arguing that, in the coming years, the world will face global crises—pandemics, extreme-weather events, technological disruptions—with growing frequency. At the same time, greater international fragmentation and tension will impede our ability to respond to them. The report outlined several possible futures. In the optimistic scenario, called the “renaissance of democracies,” the world settles into a new equilibrium characterized by technological progress, rising incomes, and responsive democratic governance, led by the U.S. and its allies. In another future, “a world adrift,” the international system is “directionless, chaotic, and volatile”; global problems are largely ignored, and multilateral institutions lose their influence.

    At a global level, as at the national one, the health crisis of the pandemic has put another preëxisting crisis into sharper relief. Effective pandemic response requires coördination across nations; this is the work of the World Health Organization, of which America has long been the largest funder. In 2019, the U.S. contributed more than four hundred million dollars to the W.H.O., but in April, 2020, Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would stop its funding. For much of the year, the U.S. also declined to join COVAX, the world’s primary global vaccine-distribution mechanism. Today less than nine per cent of people in low-income countries have received a single dose of a COVID vaccine; the rise of ever more concerning variants, such as Delta and Omicron, is due, in part, to a failure of the U.S. and other wealthy countries to vaccinate the world.

    Recently, the G-20—a forum comprising nineteen nations and the European Union, which together account for ninety per cent of the world’s economic output—proposed key steps for strengthening the global response to future infectious threats: higher and more consistent funding for the W.H.O.; greater collaboration between governments and the W.H.O. on data collection, humanitarian support, and vaccine development; and the establishment of global norms for the reporting of emerging pathogens. Will countries unite in making such changes? That depends, in large part, on their willingness to act multilaterally—to see that their own security is interwoven with the security of others. It’s an issue that’s larger than the virus. COVID-19, like the Second World War, has created a hinge in the history of the world, which could swing either toward greater cohesion or toward disarray.

    In 1954, a researcher named Muzafer Sherif conducted what would become one of the most famous experiments in social psychology. Sherif was interested in the dynamics of group conflict: how easily loyalties form; how little it takes for rival factions to quarrel; what, if anything, can be done to repair relations. As my colleague Elizabeth Kolbert wrote recently, in a piece on political polarization, Sherif invited twenty-two fifth-grade boys to a summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park, in southeastern Oklahoma. The boys were all white, from middle-class, Protestant, two-parent households. Sherif and his team divided them into two groups, each unaware that the other was housed in a cabin at another end of the camp. In the first phase of the study, lasting about a week, the groups, which named themselves the Eagles and the Rattlers, bonded over shared interests and activities—hiking, swimming, a treasure hunt with a ten-dollar reward. In the second phase, the groups were brought together in a series of zero-sum competitions: baseball, tug-of-war, touch football. The researchers, who doubled as camp counsellors, orchestrated hijinks. One group was delayed in arriving at a picnic; when they got there, they were led to believe that the other group had eaten their food. Tensions rose. The Eagles burned the Rattlers’ flag; the Rattlers raided the Eagles’ cabin. Researchers had to step in to break up fights. Division had set in.

    The goal of the third phase was to defuse the animosity. As a first step, the researchers organized a series of noncompetitive activities. The boys shared meals, watched a movie together, and celebrated the Fourth of July. Little changed. Only when the campers were given tasks requiring collaboration on a common endeavor—restarting a stalled food truck, pitching a tent with missing supplies, raising money for a movie night—did conflict decline. In the end, one group bought the other malted milk.

    The findings of the Robbers Cave experiment have become a staple of undergraduate seminars and psychology textbooks. But they appear not to apply to our current moment. Never before has it been so clear that our work, behavior, and fates are inextricably linked to those around us. Working together to control the virus should have been the ultimate shared goal. And yet, facing viral invasion, Americans couldn’t agree not to sneeze on one another. While fighting the pandemic, America has remained one of the world’s most polarized nations.

    It turns out that the Robbers Cave experiment doesn’t tell the whole story. As Gina Perry explains in her book “The Lost Boys,” Sherif had conducted a near-identical experiment the year before, in 1953. He’d invited a similar cohort of boys to a camp in upstate New York and divided them into groups: the Panthers and the Pythons. The researchers had carried out a similar series of conflict-generating shenanigans: they’d stolen clothes, ransacked tents, and broken a boy’s ukulele. This time, however, the boys caught on—they realized that they were being manipulated. Instead of fighting one another, they turned on the adults. “Maybe you just wanted to see what our reactions would be,” one boy suggested to a researcher. ​​One of the groups decided that their clothes must have gone missing because of a laundry mishap; both sides worked together to restore an overturned tent. As the experiment unravelled, Sherif began drinking heavily. He grew so despondent that he nearly punched a research assistant in the face. The experiment was stopped early; Sherif never published the findings.

    In an era of social-media virality, cable-news punditry, and political celebrity, we, too, are being manipulated. The ire we direct at one another is, at least in part, a result of forces that aim to extract political or financial gain by stoking division and appealing to our basest instincts. Despite knowing better, people in power traffic in half-truths, adding to the cacophony of conflict. They reflect our discord but also create it. We don’t yet know what post-liminal life looks like—but recognizing that truth may be the first step to healing the divide.



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