TOKYO — Years from now, if someone asks me what Tokyo was like outside all the pageantry of the Olympics, I’ll tell them it’s very quiet. That’s probably not true, but it’ll be what I remember. Like how New York isn’t really as empty as it felt last spring.
My first international trip since well before the world shut down nearly a year and a half ago also has the eerie quality of feeling like I’ve traveled back in time, looping around from what I thought was the end of the COVID-19 pandemic back to the beginning.
As a shock to the system, the same measures we dutifully adhered to for some 15 months feel all the more claustrophobic. Prolonging (even willfully!) what once felt hopelessly interminable leaves me queasy on the prospect of hope at all.
Of course it’s still a personal and professional privilege to be here — one that I feel ambivalent about. Just like it’s a privilege to have had the option to remain in a country where impressive vaccine availability (coupled with troubling apathy toward other ways of mitigating the virus) allows me to live largely like COVID is a bad memory.
I wouldn’t have come to Tokyo if I wasn’t fully vaccinated. And yet it affords me no leniency. This is for parity’s sake when it comes to coverage — it’s impossible to ignore the global inequity in vaccine access at an event designed to bring 200 countries together — and because the cost of hyper-diligence is worth it when lying would be so easy. When I think of it, my vaccine status reassures me, but there’s a psychosomatic element to behaving as if it doesn’t exist. Since I can’t see either the danger or the protection, I have to buy into both. Living like the breath of everyone around me is a threat and that my presence could prolong a pandemic is a powerful bit of method acting.
So much of this is just theatre — performative deference to the pandemic in the form of hand sanitizer, strict outdoor mask mandates, sanctions against straying from prescribed locations, and the threat that our movements are being tracked, as if piling protocols on top of each other will distract from the original sin of bringing thousands of people together. But even that evokes the early days of the pandemic when it wasn’t just the death and danger that induced panic. It was also the uncertainty of it all.
There is a genre of discourse nowadays, back in the States, about how difficult it will be to unlearn the habits of the past year and a half, how transitioning out will be just as difficult as transitioning into the COVID world was, but I’m not so sure I agree. I think we just forget how horrible it was to adapt the first time. How natural it is to be able to see our friends and family again, to see the faces of strangers, and to embrace our environment with curiosity.
Take it from someone who went to sporting events with 50,000 fans and those with none at all just a week apart — the latter is still much more jarring.
When we did this all the first time, it was awful and uneven, but at least we were ignorant — to how long it would last, how bad it would get, how quickly isolation turns into abject loneliness. Departing a New York City that was heady with post-COVID summer indulgence and landing in Olympic Land with its omnipresent protocols that border on paranoia feels like the proverbial frog that’s been suddenly pushed back into the boiling water on the verge of a hard-won escape.
The point is not my personal discomfort, which is temporary and intentional and, even at its most theatrical, designed to assuage the legitimate concerns of a population that would prefer none of us be here. The point is that, on a global or national scale, our trajectory through the pandemic has never been consistently positive. So much of the COVID experience here feel like regressing into the recent past, but looking at the headlines from back home — where cases are on the rise again as the Delta variant runs roughshod through unvaccinated communities — I worry that it’s just another way that Japan is temporally ahead of the United States.
I don’t blame the culture that wants desperately to turn the corner on COVID-19, but I can assure you that having to go backwards is hell. I say that as a sort of warning. It isn’t over yet, but with vaccines it could be.
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