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The Mass Delusion of the Pandemic Being Over

Theater historian Debra Caplan published a Twitter thread yesterday about Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 play, Rhinoceros.

In 1959, Eugene Ionesco wrote the absurdist play Rhinoceros in which one by one, an entire town of people suddenly transform into rhinos. At first, people are horrified but as the contagion spreads, (almost) everyone comes to accept that turning into a rhinoceros is fine.

Rhinoceros is a play about conformity and mob mentality and mass delusion, about how easy it is for people to accept outrageous/unacceptable things simply because everyone else is doing it.

In the end, the protagonist Berenger is the only human left.

Even reading that first bit of the thread, my mind jumped immediately to the pandemic, particularly the present moment we’re in with falling mask mandates and other discarded and ignored public safety protections. And that’s Caplan’s take too:

Over the last few weeks, as mitigation measures drop, millions of Americans who were previously cautious about Covid (and millions more who never were) have decided that it’s time to move on and pretend that it’s 2019 again.

Bars and restaurants are packed with unmasked people, mask mandates hardly exist anywhere and are no longer tied to infection rates, the new CDC map makes it look like everything is under control, and we seem to have all collectively decided that Covid is “over.”

Let’s be clear about what is actually happening here.

The idea that we can live with Covid WITHOUT any mitigation measures and expect things to turn out ok (both for individuals and as a society) is a lie.

We are watching an astounding mass delusion unfold in real time.

See also The New Normal, about shifting baselines.

Fear tends to diminish over time when a risk remains constant. You can only respond for so long. After a while, it recedes to the background, seemingly no matter how bad it is.