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How the Philips SmartSleep Sunrise Alarm Clock Changed My Life: A Love Story

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Not to be hyperbolic, but this alarm clock changed my life. It reached deep into my soul and yanked out someone I didn’t even know I had inside: a morning person. Not the type of morning person who immediately laces up their sneakers and hits the pavement, but the type who gets up before the sun to claim a little of the day for themselves. The magical span of time between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. is completely and utterly mine (and maybe my cat’s). Most of that I owe to the Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light HF3520 sunrise alarm clock.

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LJ
194 days ago
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I loooove mine
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Beware Prophecies of Civil War

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In January 1972, when I was a 13-year-old boy in Dublin, my father came home from work and told us to prepare for civil war. He was not a bloodthirsty zealot, nor was he given to hysterical outbursts. He was calm and rueful, but also grimly certain: Civil war was coming to Ireland, whether we wanted it or not. He and my brother, who was 16, and I, when I got older, would all be up in Northern Ireland with guns, fighting for the Catholics against the Protestants.

What made him so sure of our fate was that the British army’s parachute regiment had opened fire on the streets of Derry, after an illegal but essentially peaceful civil-rights march. Troops killed 13 unarmed people, mortally wounded another, and shot more than a dozen others. Intercommunal violence had been gradually escalating, but this seemed to be a tipping point. There were just two sides now, and we all would have to pick one. It was them or us.

The conditions for civil war did indeed seem to exist at that moment. Northern Irish society had become viciously polarized between one tribe that felt itself to have suffered oppression and another one fearful that the loss of its power and privilege would lead to annihilation by its ancient enemies. Both sides had long-established traditions of paramilitary violence. The state—in this case both the local Protestant-dominated administration in Belfast and the British government in London—was not only unable to stop the meltdown into anarchy; it was, as the massacre in Derry proved, joining in.

Yet my father’s fears were not fulfilled. There was a horrible, 30-year conflict that brought death to thousands and varying degrees of misery to millions. There was terrible cruelty and abysmal atrocity. There were decades of despair in which it seemed impossible that a polity that had imploded could ever be rebuilt. But the conflict never did rise to the level of civil war.

However, the belief that there was going to be a civil war in Ireland made everything worse. Once that idea takes hold, it has a force of its own. The demagogues warn that the other side is mobilizing. They are coming for us. Not only do we have to defend ourselves, but we have to deny them the advantage of making the first move. The logic of the preemptive strike sets in: Do it to them before they do it to you. The other side, of course, is thinking the same thing. That year, 1972, was one of the most murderous in Northern Ireland precisely because this doomsday mentality was shared by ordinary, rational people like my father. Premonitions of civil war served not as portents to be heeded, but as a warrant for carnage.

Could the same thing happen in the United States? Much of American culture is already primed for the final battle. There is a very deep strain of apocalyptic fantasy in fundamentalist Christianity. Armageddon may be horrible, but it is not to be feared, because it will be the harbinger of eternal bliss for the elect and eternal damnation for their foes. On what used to be referred to as the far right, but perhaps should now simply be called the armed wing of the Republican Party, the imminence of civil war is a given.

Indeed, the conflict can be imagined not as America’s future, but as its present. In an interview with The Atlantic published in November 2020, two months before the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, declared: “Let’s not fuck around.” He added, “We’ve descended into civil war.” The following month, the FBI, warning of possible attacks on state capitols, said that members of the so-called boogaloo movement “believe an impending insurgency against the government is forthcoming and some believe they should accelerate the timeline with armed, antigovernment actions leading to a civil war.”

After January 6, mainstream Republicans picked up the theme. Much of the American right is spoiling for a fight, in the most literal sense. Which is one good reason to be very cautious about echoing, as the Canadian journalist and novelist Stephen Marche does in The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future, the claim that America “is already in a state of civil strife, on the threshold of civil war.” These prophecies have a way of being self-fulfilling.

Admittedly, if there were to be another American civil war, and if future historians were to look back on its origins, they would find them quite easily in recent events. It is news to no one that the United States is deeply polarized, that its divisions are not just political but social and cultural, that even its response to a global pandemic became a tribal combat zone, that its system of federal governance gives a minority the power to frustrate and repress the majority, that much of its media discourse is toxic, that one half of a two-party system has entered a postdemocratic phase, and that, uniquely among developed states, it tolerates the existence of several hundred private armies equipped with battle-grade weaponry.

It is also true that the American system of government is extraordinarily difficult to change by peaceful means. Most successful democracies have mechanisms that allow them to respond to new conditions and challenges by amending their constitutions and reforming their institutions. But the U.S. Constitution has inertia built into it. What realistic prospect is there of changing the composition of the Senate, even as it becomes more and more unrepresentative of the population? It is not hard to imagine those future historians defining American democracy as a political life form that could not adapt to its environment and therefore did not survive.

It is one thing, however, to acknowledge the real possibility that the U.S. could break apart and could do so violently. It is quite another to frame that possibility as an inevitability. The descent into civil war is always hellish. America has still not recovered from the fratricidal slaughter of the 1860s. Even so, the American Civil War was relatively contained compared with what happened to Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, to Bosnia after the breakup of Yugoslavia, or to Congo from 1998 to 2003. The idea that such a catastrophe is imminent and unavoidable must be handled with extreme care. It is both flammable and corrosive.

Marche clearly does not intend to be either of these things, and in speculating about various possible catalysts for chaos in the U.S., he writes more in sorrow than in anger, more as a lament than a provocation. Marche’s thought experiment begins, however, with two conceptual problems that he never manages to resolve.

The first of these difficulties is that, as the German poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger put it in his 1994 book Civil Wars, “there is no useful Theory of Civil War.” It isn’t a staple in military school—Carl von Clausewitz’s bible, On War, has nothing to say about it. There are plenty of descriptions of this or that episode of internal conflict. Thucydides gave us the first one, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2,500 years ago. But as Enzensberger writes, “It’s not just that the mad reality eludes formal legal definition. Even the strategies of the military high commands fail in the face of the new world order which trades under the name of civil war. The unprecedented comes into sudden and explosive contact with the atavistic.”

This mad reality is impossible to map onto a country as vast, diverse, and demographically fluid as the United States already is, still less onto how it might be at some unspecified time in the future. Marche has a broad notion that his putative civil war will take the form of one or more armed insurrections against the federal government, which will be put down with extreme violence by the official military. This repression will in turn fuel a cycle of insurgency and counterinsurgency. Under the strain, the U.S. will fracture into several independent nations. All of this is quite imaginable as far as it goes. But such a scenario does not actually go very far in defining this sort of turmoil as a civil war. Indeed, Marche himself envisages that, while “one way or another, the United States is coming to an end,” this dissolution could in theory be a “civilized separation.”

But this possibility does not sit well with the doomsaying that is his book’s primary purpose. Nor is it internally coherent. Marche seems to think that a secession by Texas might be consensual because Texas is a “single-party state.” This would be news to the 46.5 percent of its voters who supported Joe Biden in the 2020 election. How would they feel about losing their American citizenship and being told that they now owe their allegiance to the Republic of Texas? If we really do want to imagine a future of violent conflict, would it not be just as much within seceding states as among supposedly discrete geographic and ideological blocs?

The secession of California as well as Texas is just one of five “dispatches” that Marche writes from his imagined future. He begins with an eminently plausible and well-told tale of a local sheriff who takes a stand against the government’s closure for repair of a bridge used by most of his constituents. The right-wing media make him a hero figure, and he exploits the publicity brilliantly. The bridge becomes a magnet for militias, white supremacists, and anti-government cultists. The standoff is brought to an end by a military assault, resulting in mass casualties and creating, on the right, both a casus belli and martyrs for the cause. Marche’s other dispatches describe the assassination of a U.S. president by a radicalized young loner; a combination of environmental disasters, with drought causing food shortages and a massive hurricane destroying much of New York; and the outbreak of insurrectionary violence and the equally violent responses to it.

All of these scenarios are well researched and eloquently presented. But how they relate to one another, or whether the conflicts they involve can really be regarded as a civil war, is never clear. Civil wars need mass participation, and how that could be mobilized across a subcontinent is not at all obvious. Marche seems to endorse the claim of the military historian Peter Mansoor that the pandemonium “would very much be a free-for-all, neighbor on neighbor, based on beliefs and skin colors and religion.” His scenarios, either separately or cumulatively, do not show how or why the U.S. arrives at this Hobbesian state.

Marche’s other conceptual problem is that, in order to dramatize all of this as a sudden and terrible collapse, he creates a ridiculously high baseline of American democratic normalcy. “A decade ago,” he writes, “American stability and global supremacy were a given … The United States was synonymous with the glory of democracy.” In this steady state, “a president was once the unquestioned representative of the American people’s will.” The U.S. Congress was “the greatest deliberative body in the world.”

These claims are risible. After the lies that underpinned the invasion of Iraq and the abject failures of Congress to impose any real accountability for the conduct of the War on Terror, the beacon of American democracy was pretty dim. Has the sacred legitimacy of any U.S. president been unquestioned, ever? Did we imagine the visceral hatred of Bill Clinton among Republicans or Donald Trump’s insistence that Barack Obama was not even a proper American, let alone the embodiment of the people’s will?

This failure of historical perspective means that Marche can ignore the evidence that political violence, much of it driven by racism, is not a new threat. Even if we leave aside the actual Civil War, it has long been endemic in the U.S. Were the wars of extermination against American Indians not civil wars too? What about the brutal obliteration of the Black community in Greenwood, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921—should that not be seen as an episode in a long, undeclared war on Black Americans by white supremacists? The devastating riots in cities across America that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and in Los Angeles after the beating of Rodney King in 1992, sure looked like the kind of intercommunal violence that Marche conjures as a specter from the future. Arguably, the real problem for the U.S. is not that it can be torn apart by political violence, but that it has learned to live with it.

This is happening again—even the attempted coup of January 6 is already, for much of the political culture, normalized. Marche is so intent on the coming catastrophe that he seems unable to focus on what is in front of his nose. He writes, for example, that the assault on the Capitol cannot be regarded as an insurrection, because “the rioters were only loosely organized and possessed little political support and no military support.” The third of these claims is broadly true (though military veterans featured heavily among the attackers). The first is at best dubious. The second is bizarre: The attack was incited by the man who was still the sitting president of the United States and had, both at the time and subsequently, widespread support within the Republican Party.

In this context, feverish talk of civil war has the paradoxical effect of making the current reality seem, by way of contrast, not so bad. The comforting fiction that the U.S. used to be a glorious and settled democracy prevents any reckoning with the fact that its current crisis is not a terrible departure from the past but rather a product of the unresolved contradictions of its history. The dark fantasy of Armageddon distracts from the more prosaic and obvious necessity to uphold the law and establish political and legal accountability for those who encourage others to defy it. Scary stories about the future are redundant when the task of dealing with the present is so urgent.


This article appears in the January/February 2022 print edition with the headline “Dangerous Prophecies.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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LJ
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The Vaccine Cards Are the Wrong Size

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This spring, as New York City warmed up and the local vaccination rate surged, I met my best friend for our first restaurant meal together in months. As soon as we sat down, she began rifling through her purse. “I have something for you,” she told me. From her bag came a rectangle of clear, thick, double-layered plastic—the kind of display pocket that often dangles at the end of a lanyard. My friend had swiped a handful from her office’s supply closet. “It’s for your vaccine card,” she explained. But I already knew.

When I got my first shot, in late February, I sat in the mandatory waiting area, holding my new card in one hand and my wallet in the other, trying to understand why the two objects weren’t compatible. I contemplated where I should put this brand-new golden ticket, ultimately sliding the thin piece of too-large card stock into an envelope I found in my tote. I’m going to either lose this or destroy it, I thought to myself.

Indeed, I lost it—at least for a little while. Despite dutifully sliding the card into its new protective pocket after lunch with my friend, I eventually found myself tearing my apartment apart searching for it, for exactly the reasons I had feared: It was the wrong size for the one place where most people keep all their important everyday documents, and of too nebulous a purpose to sit safely in a drawer with my birth certificate and passport. Could it unlock some sort of privileges at the airport? Were restaurants going to check it? Did I need to take it to medical appointments? My card had gotten shuffled into a sandwich baggie filled with extra masks, not to be rediscovered for six weeks.

[Read: No one actually knows if you’re vaccinated]

With all due respect to our country’s overworked and undersupported public-health apparatus: This is dumb. The card is dumb, and it’s difficult to imagine a series of intentional decisions that could have reasonably led to it as the consensus best pick. Its strangeness had been a bit less important in the past seven months, when evidence of immunity was rarely necessary to do things within America. Now, as Delta-variant cases surge and more municipalities and private businesses begin to require proof of vaccination to patronize places such as restaurants and gyms, the rubber has met the road on this flimsy de facto verification apparatus. It’s not the highest-stakes question of this stage of the pandemic, but it’s one that’s become quite common: How did we end up with these cards?

The logical step here is to ask the CDC what the deal is, but the agency, which issues the cards, isn’t saying much about them. It did not respond to my request for comment, and little is known about how the cards came to be. Their mysterious origin is tied up in the country’s light approach to keeping tabs on vaccinations, which, as my colleague Ian Bogost wrote in May, amounts to something of an honor system. America has no national database that records shots, and the Department of Health and Human Services does not know who has or hasn’t been vaccinated; the federal government relies on reporting from the states, and state governments have highly variable attitudes and strategies about vaccination and reporting.

The persistent informality of these efforts is especially odd because Americans always were going to need a way to demonstrate their COVID-19 vaccination status to others. Nearly as soon as the pandemic began, experts and government leaders around the world began discussing how people might be asked to prove immunity in order to return to some elements of everyday life. The Atlantic ran its first story on the topic in April 2020. While other countries have implemented national verification systems during their vaccine rollouts, the United States’ verification efforts have varied wildly. Some states, such as California and New York, are now trying to retrofit digital vaccine verification into the country’s piecemeal system, whereas others, such as Texas and Florida, have passed laws to punish businesses that try to check patrons’ status or have outlawed the use of verification systems entirely.

So now the only consistent vaccine documentation in America is the too-big, too-little cards, and they are precisely the “bad outcome” that the Princeton professor Ed Felten predicted in December they would be: a document designed to be a personal record that ends up being used as an official license to breathe on strangers in sealed rooms.

[Read: A better solution than laminating your vaccine card]

Although the CDC isn’t talking, there is much to suggest that the vaccine cards were indeed never meant to be evidentiary. The card’s template was initially publicly accessible on a number of state-government websites, and is still available on Florida’s. An official in Missouri, where the template was taken down at law enforcement’s request, told NBC News that the state had originally posted it to make things easier for local vaccine providers. Try to imagine governments freely distributing their templates for driver’s licenses, passports, or other documents intended to certify a particular identity or status. The vaccination card is much closer, physically and aesthetically, to an appointment-reminder card you get from the dentist when you schedule your next teeth cleaning. (The FBI has since clarified that printing your own vaccine card is illegal.)

When you hold one of the vax cards, you can see how people would immediately misunderstand it as something that’s meant to be kept on your person. Although too big for a wallet, they’re also too small to easily keep track of outside a wallet. “It’s absolutely the wrong size,” Alison Buttenheim, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing who has studied vaccine documentation, told me. She noted that the cards don’t match the dimensions of any other common vaccine documentation she knows of, including the yellow booklet that the World Health Organization uses for international travelers, which is bigger. As we were talking, Buttenheim briefly misplaced her own folded-over vaccination card; it slid a little too far into one of her wallet’s compartments. (At this point, I should admit that I again lost mine in my apartment for most of a day after getting it out to examine for this article.)

A better option, Buttenheim told me, might have involved two pieces: a larger document with information about follow-up appointments and side effects, for example, which would have cut down on the amount of stuff that needed to go on a more durable, wallet-size, and ideally harder-to-fake plastic card. Such a system would also avoid data-privacy concerns that can come with smartphone-app verification systems, as well as the accessibility issues inherent in requiring people to own a smartphone to prove their ability to work or access services. Those requirements are the hardest on the poor or elderly, for whom COVID-19 poses the greatest health risk. And the technology for some of those apps is, uh, still being refined. New York City’s smartphone verification app—not to be confused with New York State’s Excelsior Pass, or its new Excelsior Plus Pass—appears to accept photos of restaurant menus as proof of vaccination. A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that’s because the city’s app doesn't verify anything; it simply gives users a place to store a photo of their vaccine card.

But let’s hold our focus on the most important point of inquiry: What’s the deal with the cards? When Bogost looked into them in May, a historian at the CDC guessed that their design was likely inherited, but no one seemed to know from what. “Like so much of our vaccine rollout, I'm guessing someone had to produce this in, like, eight hours,” Buttenheim said. “There was not time to workshop it and focus-group it and pressure-test it and rapid-cycle prototype it.” But she also noted that the card’s backside includes a date in tiny print in the lower left-hand corner, which likely indicates when the design was finalized or printed. Buttenheim’s and mine are both dated September 3, 2020—months before any vaccine received an emergency-use authorization from the FDA, and before the mass-vaccination effort had taken any real shape. Preparation well in advance is important, of course, but it’s even better if it retains some flexibility to respond to new needs (such as vaccine verification) as they arise.

[Read: The futility of vaccine passports]

What seems most likely is that maybe no one thought far enough forward to consider the cards’ eventual off-label usage. “While I don’t know for sure, the size of the COVID-19 vaccine card is likely a prime example of public health being a bit antiquated,” Jen Kates, the senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me via email. “The large vaccine cards on paper are a relic from the past, and they’ve never been updated. No one thought to do so now.” She compared the low-tech cards to some jurisdictions’ use of fax machines to send data to the CDC at the height of the pandemic.

Everyone I talked with eventually landed on the same conclusion, more or less. “I don't think it’s that deep,” Chelsea Cirruzzo, a public-health reporter at U.S. News & World Report, whose tweet about the oversize vaccine cards recently went mega-viral, told me. “I think someone just printed out a bunch of cards that are easy to write your name and vaccine brand on, without thinking about wallets.” Maybe the dimensions were determined by the even subdivision of an existing inventory of card stock. I even called my mom, Pamela Mull, who has considerable professional expertise when it comes to federal agencies printing out flimsy and questionably useful cards—she worked for the Social Security Administration for decades before retiring in the mid-2000s. Her verdict? “Nobody thought about it.”

For weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel so antagonized by something as innocuous as the moderately suboptimal design of the vaccine cards. Sure, they’re unwieldy on a number of levels, and they’re being asked to serve a purpose for which the country should have—and certainly could have—provided a better, more secure answer. But so what, really? It’s just a typical story of American government inertia. Maybe hoping for more is naive.

That assumption is precisely the problem. When I was vaccinated, in late winter, my appointment was at one of the country’s first FEMA-run mass-vaccination sites, on its second day of operation. Even as the site was still getting its sea legs and the military personnel who ran it were learning their new duties, it was a marvel of efficiency at a grand scale; I went from freezing at the back of a block-long line to sitting in the mandated post-vaccination waiting area in less than 15 minutes. On my second visit, I didn’t wait a single second. At its peak, the site vaccinated 3,000 Brooklyn residents every day in the gymnasium of Medgar Evers College, all with an astonishingly effective government-funded vaccine that had been developed years faster than any other immunization in human history.

The American vaccination mobilization, at its best, is a clear testament to how untrue the country’s common assumption of government ineptness can be. When funding and resources and political will are concentrated, doing something that will make millions of people’s lives better—even something that sounds like a pipe dream—is possible, and it becomes possible extremely quickly. The inconvenient paper vestige that vaccinated Americans now carry of that experience is an exasperating reminder not of the shots themselves, but of all the other missed opportunities our government has had to ease the pandemic’s many predictable problems.

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Sunday Secrets

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European Pied Flycatcher

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European Pied Flycatcher

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The Pandemic Experts Are Not Okay

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Saskia Popescu’s phone buzzes throughout the night, waking her up. It had already buzzed 99 times before I interviewed her at 9:15 a.m. ET last Monday. It buzzed three times during the first 15 minutes of our call. Whenever a COVID-19 case is confirmed at her hospital system, Popescu gets an email, and her phone buzzes. She cannot silence it. An epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, Popescu works to prepare hospitals for outbreaks of emerging diseases. Her phone is now a miserable metronome, ticking out the rhythm of the pandemic ever more rapidly as Arizona’s cases climb. “It has almost become white noise,” she told me.

For many Americans, the coronavirus pandemic has become white noise—old news that has faded into the background of their lives. But the crisis is far from over. Arizona is one of the pandemic’s new hot spots, with 24,000 confirmed cases over the past week and rising hospitalizations and deaths. Popescu saw the surge coming, “but to actually see it play out is heartbreaking,” she said. “It didn’t have to be this way.”

Popescu is one of many public-health experts who have been preparing for and battling the pandemic since the start of the year. They’re not treating sick people, as doctors or nurses might be, but are instead advising policy makers, monitoring the pandemic’s movements, modeling its likely trajectory, and ensuring that hospitals are ready.

[Read: America’s patchwork pandemic is fraying even further]

By now they are used to sharing their knowledge with journalists, but they’re less accustomed to talking about themselves. Many of them told me that they feel duty-bound and grateful to be helping their country at a time when so many others are ill or unemployed. But they’re also very tired, and dispirited by America’s continued inability to control a virus that many other nations have brought to heel. As the pandemic once again intensifies, so too does their frustration and fatigue.

America isn’t just facing a shortfall of testing kits, masks, or health-care workers. It is also looking at a drought of expertise, as the very people whose skills are sorely needed to handle the pandemic are on the verge of burning out.

To work in preparedness, Nicolette Louissaint told me, is to constantly stare at society’s vulnerabilities and imagine the worst possible future. The nonprofit she runs, Healthcare Ready, works to steel communities for outbreaks and disasters by ensuring that they have access to medical supplies. She started revving up her operations in January. By March, when businesses and schools started closing and governors began issuing stay-at-home orders, “we were already running on fumes,” she said. Throughout March and April, she got two hours of sleep a night. Now she’s getting four. And yet “I always feel like I’m never doing enough,” she said. “Like one of my colleagues said, I could sleep for two weeks and still feel this tired. It’s embedded in us at this point.”

But the physical exhaustion is dwarfed by the emotional toll of seeing the imagined worst-case scenarios become reality. “One of the big misconceptions is that we enjoy being right,” Louissaint said. “We’d be very happy to be wrong, because it would mean lives are being saved.”

The field of public health demands a particular way of thinking. Unlike medicine, which is about saving individual patients, public health is about protecting the well-being of entire communities. Its problems, from malnutrition to addiction to epidemics, are broader in scope. Its successes come incrementally, slowly, and through the sustained efforts of large groups of people. As Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida, told me, “The pandemic is a huge problem, but I’m not afraid of huge problems.”

[Read: Why the coronavirus is so confusing]

The more successful public health is, however, the more people take it for granted. Funding has dwindled since the 2008 recession. Many jobs have disappeared. Now that the entire country needs public-health advice, there aren’t enough people qualified to offer it. The number of epidemiologists who specialize in pandemic-level infectious threats is small enough that “I think I know them all,” says Caitlin Rivers, who studies outbreaks at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

The people doing this work have had to recalibrate their lives. From March to May, Colin Carlson, a research professor at Georgetown University who specializes in infectious diseases, spent most of his time traversing the short gap between his bed and his desk. He worked relentlessly and knocked back coffee, even though it exacerbates his severe anxiety: The cost was worth it, he felt, when the United States still seemed to have a chance of controlling COVID-19.

The U.S. frittered away that chance. Through social distancing, the American public bought the country valuable time at substantial personal cost. The Trump administration should have used that time to roll out a coordinated plan to ramp up America’s ability to test and trace infected people. It didn’t. Instead, to the immense frustration of public-health advisers, leaders rushed to reopen while most states were still woefully unprepared.

[Read: The U.S. is repeating its deadliest pandemic mistake]

When Arizona Governor Doug Ducey began reviving businesses in early May, the intensive-care unit of Popescu’s hospital was still full of COVID-19 patients. “Within our public-health bubble, we were getting nervous, but then you walked outside and it was like Pleasantville,” she said. “People thought we had conquered it, and now it feels like we’re drowning.”

The COVID-19 unit has had to expand across an entire hospital wing and onto another floor. Beds have filled with younger patients. Long lines are snaking around the urgent-care building, and people are passing out in the 110-degree heat. At some hospitals, labs are so inundated that it takes several days to get test results back. “We thought we could have scaled down instead of scaling up,” Popescu said. “But because of poor political decisions that every public-health person I know disagreed with, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”

“I feel like I’ve been making the same recommendations since January,” says Krutika Kuppalli of Stanford University. The last time she felt this tired was in 2014, after spending three months in West Africa helping with the region’s historic Ebola outbreak. Everyone who experienced that crisis, she told me, was deeply shaken; she herself suffered from post-traumatic stress upon returning home.

The same experts who warned of the coronavirus’s resurgence are now staring, with the same prophetic worry, at a health-care system that is straining just as hurricane season begins. And they’re demoralized about repeatedly shouting evidence-based advice into a political void. “It feels like writing ‘Bad things are about to happen’ on a napkin and then setting the napkin on fire,” Carlson says.

A pandemic would have always been a draining ordeal. But it is especially so because the U.S., instead of mounting a unified front, is disjointed, cavalier, and fatalistic. Every week brings fresh farce, from Donald Trump suggesting that the country should do less testing to massive indoor gatherings of unmasked people.

“One by one, people are seeing something so absurd that it takes them out of commission,” Carlson says.

Public health is not a calling for people who crave the limelight, and researchers like Rivers, the Johns Hopkins professor, have found their sudden prominence jarring. Almost all of the 2,000 Twitter followers she had in January were other scientists. Most of the 130,000 followers she now has are not. The slow, verbose world of academic communication has given way to the blistering, constrained world of tweets and news segments.

The pandemic is also bringing out academia’s darker sides—competition, hostility, sexism, and a lust for renown. Armchair experts from unrelated fields have successfully positioned themselves as trusted sources. Male scientists are publishing more than their female colleagues, who are disproportionately shouldering the burden of child care during lockdowns. Many researchers have suddenly pivoted to COVID-19, producing sloppy work with harmful results. That further dispirits more cautious researchers, who, on top of dealing with the virus and reticent politicians, are also forced to confront their own colleagues. “If I cannot reasonably convince people I’ve been friends with for years that their work is causing tangible harm, what possible future do I see on this career path?” Carlson asks.

[Read: A dire warning from COVID-19 test providers]

Other scientists and health officials are facing the wrath of a nation on edge. Unsettled by months of stay-at-home orders, confused by rampant misinformation, distraught over the country’s blunders, and embroiled in yet more culture wars over masks and lockdowns, Americans are lashing out. Public-health experts—and women in particular—have become targets. Several have resigned because of threats and harassment. Others face streams of invective in their inboxes and on their Twitter feeds. “I can say something and get horrendously attacked, but a man who doesn’t even work in this field can go on national TV and be revered for saying the exact same thing,” Popescu said.

Some critics have caricatured public-health experts as finger-wagging alarmists ensconced in an ivory tower, far away from the everyday people who are suffering the restrictive consequences of their advice. But this dichotomy is false. The experts I spoke with are also scared. They’re also feeling trapped at home. They also miss their loved ones. Louissaint, who lives in Baltimore, hasn’t seen her New York–based parents this year.

“I feel like I’m living in at least three realities at the same time,” Louissaint told me. She’s responding directly to the pandemic, trying to ensure that patients and hospitals get the supplies they need. She’s running an organization, trying to make sure that her employees keep their jobs. She’s a Black woman, living through a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black people and the historic protests that have followed the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. During the ensuing reckonings about race, “I’ve been pulled into so many conversations about equity that people weren’t having months ago,” Louissant said.

“Someone said to me, ‘I hope you’re getting tons of support,’” she added. “But there’s no feasible thing that anyone could do to make this better, no matter how much they love you. The mental toll isn’t something you can easily share.”

These laments feel familiar to people who lived through the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, says Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale epidemiologist who has been working on HIV for 30 years and who has the virus himself. “I have friends who survived the virus but didn’t survive the toll it took on their lives,” Gonsalves told me. “I’m incredulous that I’m seeing this twice in my lifetime. The idea that I’m going to have to fend off another virus … like, really, can I have just one?”

But Gonsalves added that HIV veterans have a deep well of emotional reserves to draw from, and a sense of shared purpose to mobilize. His advice to the younger generation is twofold. First, don’t ignore your feelings: “Your anxiety, fear, and anger are all real,” he said. Then, find your people. “They may not be your colleagues,” he said, and they might not be scientists. But they’ll share the same values, and be united in recognizing that “public health is not a career, but a mission and a calling.”

Despite the toll of the work and the pressure from all sides, the public-health experts I talked with are determined to continue. “I’m glad I have a way in which I can be useful,” Rivers said. “I feel like it’s my duty to do what I can."

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LJ
807 days ago
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Beaverton, OR
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