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Cautiously emerging from the COVID cave

Apr 18,2022 - Last updated at Apr 18,2022

Mask mandates have ended in all 50 states and people are re-emerging. Downtown Washington feels alive once more. Restaurants are filling up, and rush hour is again a nightmare. But caution is still in order. Last summer, some thought that the pandemic had receded; a relieved public began to act “normal” only to be smacked down by two new waves of the virus, which took deadly tolls. Now with yet another wave of the virus ascendant in Europe and China, it would be unwise to completely let down our guard only to be smacked down again.

Meanwhile, I uncomfortably emerged from my COVID cave a few weeks ago to attend a few meetings and return to my office in downtown Washington DC. I know I’m not alone in feeling uneasy at the strangeness of re-entering the world.

My emergence was prompted by the Democratic National Committee’s holding its first in-person meetings in over two years. As chair of the DNC’s Ethnic Council, representing Democrats of European and Mediterranean ancestry, I presided at our council meeting and attended a gathering of council chairs where I was able to speak briefly with President Biden.

Everyone at the DNC was required to show proof of vaccination, pass a COVID test, and wear masks on site. Even with these measures in place, it still felt strange and uncomfortable. I chose not to participate in any of the larger gatherings or unmasked social activities during the three-day event. 

Seeing old friends and colleagues in person was a delight after two years on Zoom, but I tread cautiously. Coming from a large extended family that includes immune-compromised members, I’m not willing to put them or myself at risk. The simple truth is that after years of social isolation getting out into the world is both joyous and difficult.

Polls show I’m not alone in my ambivalence. Americans are evenly divided on ending mask mandates and relaxing restrictions on social gatherings. To some extent, the division is partisan. Many Republicans believe that the pandemic was a Democratic-hyped conspiracy from the start. One quarter of Americans are still unvaccinated and one-half aren’t fully vaccinated, mostly Republicans, and the unvaccinated are 10 times more likely to be hospitalised than the fully vaccinated. Despite the significant drop in daily reported cases, COVID-19 still accounts for one in seven deaths in the US. We’re not out of the woods. 

After my DNC outing, I decided to make an effort to return to my office. I’ve been there only four times in two years. It reminds me of Pompeii, a place frozen in the past, with messages I needn’t return, and stacks of reading materials so dated I’ll never read them. It’s strange needing reacclimating to a place I went daily for 35 years.

Continuing my re-emergence, this week I’m traveling to upstate New York for several speaking engagements, my first in-person events since COVID. The prospect has me feeling uneasy despite having spent the majority of my adult life making speeches before audiences around the world. But the prospect of getting on a plane, speaking before a few hundred people, and exchanging pleasantries afterwards now feels unsettling. 

But I am now out of the cave and committed to making a go of it. Unlike those who never took COVID seriously, I did. Unlike those who act as though the nightmare is over, I do not. For me, there’ll be no blissful return to “normal”. But life does go on, and I am determined to make the best of it while we can, and to do so cautiously.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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