Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass., on July 8, 2020. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
It will surprise no one who went to graduate school that out of all of Harvard’s graduate departments, the business school has had the big covid-19 outbreak. As an architect of my acquaintance noted about her time at Harvard: “The MBAs sure did seem to party a lot.” The business school has moved most of its classes online after a surge of cases linked to unmasked indoor socializing. According to the Wall Street Journal, students are also being asked to “stop unmasked indoor activities, limit in-person interactions with others outside their household, move group gatherings online and cancel all group travel.”
But this request has a certain begging quality. MBAs are there to network with other MBAs and score interviews with elite firms, not to master course content. They may rebel at paying $100,000 a year to sit home and stare at a screen. Nor could you blame them, since MBAs can do the math. Most are in their mid-to-late 20s, at low risk for covid complications; and 95 percent of Harvard students are vaccinated. Why should they isolate themselves as if those things weren’t true? More to the point, why is Harvard asking them to?
These interventions were right to do in September 2020, when the alternative was to let covid-19 rip through vulnerable populations unhindered. But this is 2021. We have multiple extremely effective vaccines that dramatically decrease the risk of symptomatic disease. Even if you have a breakthrough case, vaccines reduce the risk of dying or spreading it to others. And vaccines aren’t the only weapon in our arsenal. We also have monoclonal antibodies that can treat people who already have covid-19. And just this week, Merck announced it had halted a study of molnupiravir, an antiviral drug because the pill was so effective against covid-19 — reducing the risk of hospitalization and death by nearly half — that an independent board recommended the company apply for emergency use authorization as quickly as possible. Of course, one might argue that we could reduce risk yet further by wearing masks indoors and limiting our contact with others as much as possible. This is the implicit argument the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes when it recommends masking indoors for anyone living in an area of the country with high or substantial transmission — which is to say, basically everyone living in the country.
To a point, this is a reasonable stance. But beyond that point, the covid-19 precautions start making it impossible to have any semblance of a normal life. That was sustainable as a temporary emergency measure, while we waited for a vaccine. It is neither reasonable nor feasible as a long-term plan. And a long-term plan is what we need since it’s now clear that covid-19 is going to circulate alongside other respiratory infections that torment us every winter. We have to adjust to that reality and develop a regime we can live with year after year.
That’s not to say we have to say, “Live free or die,” and give up on prevention. Our new normal might include wearing masks on airplanes and public transit. It might include aggressive funding of research on drugs like molnupiravir — and a longer-term rethinking of our regulatory culture to place a greater emphasis on speed over certainty. It could well include even broader vaccine mandates — yes, even for schoolchildren. Whatever we settle on, it has to be something that allows most people to go about their lives normally most of the time. Unfortunately, that’s not something our public health establishment will easily bring itself to say. Even before the pandemic, public health culture often proved very reluctant to do cost-benefit analysis — a tendency we can see in the war on vaping.
But the result of zero tolerance wasn’t that we all got wildly healthier; it was that people commonly ignored the public health establishment’s advice. How many of you eat your steaks well done and your eggs fried solid because government authorities are worried about food poisoning? Probably almost none of you, because most of us don’t want to do literally everything possible to maximize the number of years we live — we want to live them well.
For the past 18 months, we’ve been focused on the “maximize” part, and rightly so; despite our precautions, during 2020, life expectancy dropped by more than a year for women and by more than two years for men. But we cannot spend the rest of our lives in a permanent state of emergency, because most people won’t even if they should.
Covid-19 is going to be our new normal, which means we must find a way to live normally despite it. We should do everything we can to fight the disease but abandon those measures we can’t do forever — like asking healthy, vaccinated young people to shut themselves inside the house every time caseloads begin to rise.