For the last year and a half of the pandemic, COVID-19 has served as two distinct illnesses: a respiratory disease much like the flu, albeit more contagious and more lethal, and, in the view of Democratic politicians, technocratic public health officials, and media elites who collectively comprise Team Blue, a sort of spiritual sickness or moral failing that predominantly afflicts the wicked and incautious.

Bad people, you see, get COVID-19.

Good people “trust the experts” and follow all of their dictates, which render them immune to the disease, unlike their sinful compatriots. You know the type: those Trump-voting red-state deplorables from Florida, Texas, and Arizona, the ones who refuse to wear their masks, get their booster shots, or keep their schools closed. They’re bad people because they contracted COVID-19; if they had been good people, they would have worn their masks — even outdoors! — practiced social distancing, canceled their Fourth of July plans, pulled their children out of intramural sports, worked from home (all jobs are that flexible, right?), written off their anti-vax relatives and reported their Facebook posts as misinformation, ordered all of their groceries online (to quote Lucille Bluth, “It’s one banana, Michael. What could it cost — $10?”), and, in general, put their lives on hold for as long as Dr. Anthony Fauci said was necessary.

In certain Protestant Christian traditions, the elect are those predestined to enter the kingdom of heaven. No one can be sure that they are a member of the elect, and no amount of dutifulness can change one’s station, but performing good works is a strong indicator of elect status. So, too, with COVID-19 caution: Good liberals have tried their hardest to flatten that curve, even as two weeks have stretched into two years, not just to avoid the disease but in order to prove their moral righteousness, their devotion to following the science.

The most devout have gone to great lengths to outdo each other, especially in recent months, as the widespread availability of vaccines has eroded some popular support for caution. Recently, the Atlantic’s Ed Yong wrote an entire article about his decision to cancel his 40th birthday party.

“I still mask indoors,” he wrote. “I still eat outdoors at restaurants. I still avoid large gatherings. I’m still writing articles that take a toll on my own resilience, to help our readers make sense of a crisis that I desperately want to never think about again. I’ve tried to put we over me. A birthday party is almost the antithesis of that ethic — an asymmetric gathering in which we celebrate me.” Denial of pleasure in the name of promoting public health is an essential pandemic sacrament for the elect. On Twitter, the independent journalist Michael Tracey, a critic of repressive COVID-19 mitigation measures, has compiled an impressive collection of liberals explaining their decision to cancel various holidays plans.

“Cancelled our family fest,” wrote one. “We are all vaxxed and mostly boosted but I just didn’t want to be ‘one of those people’ who caused a surge at our local hospital.”

“The closest I got to ‘gathering’ was my mom picked up a plate of food from my porch,” wrote another. “Even though we were 12 feet away from each other, and outside, we were still masked.”

These statements call to mind medieval monastics who wore hairshirts and whipped themselves because suffering brought them closer to the divine. The willingness to deprive oneself of fulfillment was seen as evidence of godliness — then, and now.

The deplorables, on the other hand, are wicked and sinful: a fallen, ailing people. When Georgia first began to lift the lockdowns in April 2020, the Atlantic called it an “experiment in human sacrifice.” That same month, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin assailed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for leaving the beaches open a few days too long:

“DeSantis’s delay in taking steps to save lives — steps that are patently obvious — is reckless in the extreme and morally indefensible,” wrote Rubin. “No state is immune to the virus nor to fatalities. But the difference between the inescapable, unpreventable deaths and the death count that will result from willfully ignorant and stubbornly counterproductive decisions falls on the heads of political decision-makers. DeSantis will be morally — if not legally — responsible for hundreds if not thousands of preventable deaths.”

As recently as July 2021, Rubin criticized DeSantis for downplaying rising cases numbers. Five short months later, cases are staggeringly higher than they were in July, but Rubin thinks it’s time to stop “agonizing” over cases. Little changed between the Fourth of July and Christmas, except that a great many COVID-19-cautious liberals finally caught the virus despite their best efforts and the Biden administration admitted that it was time to move on.

Indeed, the omicron/delta winter wave has hit elite liberal circles in New York City and Washington, D.C., particularly hard: Even stalwart members of the “believe the science” consensus such as Dr. Leana Wen, a CNN medical commentator and former director of Planned Parenthood, are admitting that the convenient masks with which so many people have armed themselves provide scant protection against the new strains: “Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations,” she warned.

As worrying as it is to see case numbers rise so dramatically, the silver lining is that many more members of Team Blue seem to be accepting, at long last, that catching COVID-19 is not a moral failing: The virus comes for everyone, and the only thing to do is get vaccinated and live life as normally as possible.

In December 2020, the actress Alyssa Milano, who at the time was recovering from a case of long COVID-19, wrote that she was paralyzed with fear that her parents, children, and husband would soon contract the virus. “The fact that they haven’t been infected means they are definitely still vulnerable,” she wrote. “I have nightmares of losing my mom, of my husband, David, in the hospital, of explaining to my kids the very worst news they would ever hear. As someone who already struggled with generalized anxiety disorder, I find that this fear adds an entirely new dimension of hell to daily life.”

A year later, as two considerably more infectious variants wreak havoc on case counts, her tune has changed.

“90% of the people I know have Covid,” she observed on Twitter. “100% are triple vaxxed & thankfully they have mild symptoms.”

This is the right attitude, though it is telling that it is only gaining traction among members of Team Blue now that their own tribe is succumbing to infection. Indeed, the sentiment that there’s not very much to do at either the individual level or the level of government policy was predominantly a right-wing belief until this very week; now, it’s broadly shared by even President Joe Biden, who suddenly confessed on Monday that “there is no federal solution.” The admission is stunning due to its frank honesty. It’s equally stunning that it’s not receiving more in-group pushback. The omicron wave, if it even is an omicron wave — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seems less confident with each passing day — has substantially weakened the liberal desire for pandemic moralizing.

“Thousands who ‘followed the rules’ are about to get covid,” wrote Angela Haupt, a freelance health writer, in the Washington Post. “They shouldn’t be ashamed.” Haupt’s article quotes a 30-something graduate student who recently tested positive for the virus despite all of her precautions. “I feel very embarrassed and dumb,” she said. “It’s eye-opening that I feel so much shame from it. I’m realizing how much judgment I was secretly harboring against people who got it before.”

The pandemic era has seen the ascendancy of the ultimate judge: Karen, a slang term for an entitled, holier-than-thou rules vigilante who will report strangers to their bosses or even the police for failing to don a mask or stand 6 feet away. (At the height of the pandemic, on the streets of Washington, D.C., I had three separate encounters with various Karens who heckled me for failing to wear a mask while jogging by myself outside.) With any hope, the twilight of the COVID Karens is upon us: More and more people are finally accepting the fact that neither militant masking nor social distancing provide such vigorous defense against the disease.

For now, the main holdouts occupy the most elite and prestigious liberal enclaves: college campuses. No institution on the planet has taken COVID-19 mitigation more seriously than the Ivy League. Princeton University recently moved exams online; when students return to campus in January, they will be required to get booster shots by the end of the month. That’s in addition to twice-weekly testing and severe restrictions on student activities and socialization. Students are not supposed to use the cafeteria, attend parties, or really hang out at all. The policies are similar at Columbia University, Harvard University, and Brown University. The University of Southern California told students that if they would like to drink a sip of water, they would need to go outside, for only there could they safely lower their masks.

COVID-19 security theater at colleges is particularly absurd given that campuses are mostly occupied by people in their late teenage years and early 20s who are among the cohorts least at risk of a negative COVID-19 health outcome. Moreover, their vaccination rates are upward of 95%. There is no environment that could better justify a permissive COVID-19 regime than an elite college campus. In reality, the exact reverse has occurred, with college administrators implementing the most restrictive pandemic policies in the entire country.

The higher education sector has long immured itself against common sense, and so it won’t be surprising if college campuses continue to require masks, testing, boosters, social distancing, and virtual schooling at random intervals long into the future. We must zealously guard against this culture of compliance spreading from the university to the rest of society. The hostility of student-activists toward basic principles of free speech and due process did not remain a quirk of Yale University. It eventually became a norm within elite media, social media, and other corporations competing for approval from “woke” liberals.

At the same time, everyone who has long since tired of the cult of the COVID Karen, of the quasi-religious shaming that follows any announcement of easing restrictions in red states and red spaces, should see salvation at hand. Omicron is coming for saints and sinners alike, and it’s increasingly obvious that ritualistic, performative self-deprivation cannot ward it off.

Robby Soave is a Reason magazine senior editor and the author of Tech Panic.