Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University in Rhode Island, has written for The Atlantic that we should “declare a pandemic amnesty.” Predictably, this has already drawn many rebuttals, including this excellent response by Emily Burns on behalf of the frustrated mothers whose children bore the heaviest costs of lockdown and school closure policies. Burns’s piece links to several other good responses, or you could binge on this micro-genre via a quick Google search. Quite a few people aren’t ready to grant amnesty just yet, it seems. Why should we?
Oster begins her piece with the memory of her family taking many outdoor hikes in 2020, there being nothing else to do. They had cloth facemasks at the ready. When the lead hiker signaled an approaching stranger, they doffed masks and (if necessary) barked warnings for to keep distance. Now, it turns out, “outdoor transmission was vanishingly rare. Our cloth masks made out of old bandanas wouldn’t have done anything, anyway. But the thing is: We didn’t know.”
She makes a similar claim regarding school closures, which in many of the United States’ largest urban school districts continued through the entire 2020-21 academic year. “Health risks of in-school spread were relatively low, whereas the costs to students’ well-being and educational progress were high… But in spring and summer 2020, we had only glimmers of information.”
On the draconian closure of public spaces, Oster cites “Los Angeles County [closing] its beaches in summer 2020. Ex post facto, this makes no more sense than my family’s masked hiking trips. But we need to learn from our mistakes and then let them go.”
Oster’s last point here is actually the right one, but I think she negates her own argument. Yes, we need to learn from our mistakes. If “letting them go” means simply declaring that no blame for misjudgments is possible or necessary, then I disagree.
It is worth remembering, as Oster’s plea seems to gloss over, that Covid policy debates were not cost-free conversational disagreements of opinion. People lost jobs; family members refused to see one another; children’s social development was stunted; non-Covid death rates rose amid neglect of routine healthcare; loneliness and despair increased; youth suicide rates spiked; friends were alienated from one another; in my native Britain and many parts of the U.S. Christmas was canceled. I could go on.
Oster says that we need to “learn from our mistakes,” but surely doing so requires a public reckoning—not as Oster suggests, because “the people who got it right, for whatever reason, may want to gloat.” No, we shouldn’t simply “declare amnesty” and move on because this kind of “amnesty” invites amnesia. Human beings are creatures of memory; our future behavior is conditioned by what we have learned (rightly or otherwise) from the past. When momentous events of such scale occur, the longevity of our democracies depends upon a full postmortem.
I couldn’t attempt such an inquiry here, even if I were the person for it. Others have written and will write book-length re-evaluations of who knew what, and when, and what choices were made in conscious exclusion of alternatives. Interested readers might see, for example, epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse’s The Year the World Went Mad or journalist Laura Dodsworth’s A State of Fear for critiques of the British overreaction to Covid-19. I don’t claim to be as knowledgeable as these writers or to have such well-researched opinions.
Who am I to add any words to the existing profusion on this topic? I am not—as the common Covid-era disclaimer went—a virologist. I didn’t even make myself an amateur one by pouring over endless peer-reviewed medical journals in order to “gotcha” my politically other cousin or brother-in-law via Facebook. I’m not a career public health bureaucrat, or (like fall-Prime Minister Boris Johnson) a former magazine editor made famous by a triumphant appearance on a television news-comedy show. I am just an adult, a voting citizen. I can drive a car—dangerously, while operating a cell phone, if I choose. Being a naturalized American, I may own firearms. I am, in short, a little sovereign: one of the faceless millions whose collective will is the basis of all law in a free democracy. So are you. Frankly, that’s rather terrifying.
As Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” We might adapt and broaden the principle to electoral democracy, saying that anyone who wants to make laws for other people shouldn’t be allowed to do so. Personally, my main “takeaway” from the pandemic is a fretful conviction that most people’s capacity for accurate personal risk assessment is low, their propensity toward disproportional fear immense.
This may be an ungenerous conclusion, but we cannot forget that in social democracies all law—including our personal rights—ultimately rest on the consent of our neighbor. Pardon me for being unwilling to silently “move on” from your irrational dread of a virus that was, statistically, almost guaranteed to do you or your children no real harm, if the consequence of your fear was a coercive state prohibition on my taking an afternoon walk.
Some People Did Know
This brings me back to Oster’s major premise, the plea that “we didn’t know.” I’m sorry, but some people did know. Oster dismisses those who tried to tell you so, writing that, “given the amount of uncertainty, almost every position was taken on every topic. And on every topic, someone was eventually proved right, and someone else was proved wrong.” The implication here is that well into the year 2021, no one’s opinion was any better than an instinctual “shot in the dark.” That simply isn’t true. There were plenty of dissenters making reasoned arguments for better alternatives than the policies we actually pursued at a price yet to be fully reckoned.
In Britain, Toby Young’s Lockdown Sceptic (now The Daily Sceptic) was questioning the prevailing policy narrative in the first week of April, 2020. In early October, prominent medical professionals in numerous countries signed on to the Great Barrington Declaration, warning that “lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health.” They stated unambiguously that “vulnerability to death from COVID-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young.”
Personally, I shared the fear and uncertainty that followed the spread of Covid-19 in the United States during March, 2020. Despite my libertarian tendencies, I sympathized with the logic of the now-infamous “fifteen days to slow the spread.” Reading and listening to the same news articles and podcasts available to everyone else, however, I felt sure by mid-2020 that lockdowns and universal masking were achieving more harm than good. Furthermore, it seemed clear that there was little logic to the young and healthy staying home at immense fiscal cost, when collective immunity would be better served by their contracting the virus.
Two years later, I’m more convinced that those instincts were correct. This matters not because I like saying “I told you so” (though, let’s be honest, we all do), but because opinion makes policy and law. Memory of past events makes future policy and law, and erroneous memory will make bad law. If “we” learned the wrong lessons from the Covid pandemic, we had better unlearn them before we “move on.” If we don’t, next time won’t be any better.
Public policy in social democracies is often a choice between the lesser of evils. I don’t think lightly of anyone’s death, nor am I insensible to the horror of people dying unattended in makeshift hospital beds for want of a ventilator. I know that the pandemic was bad. Still I can imagine worse things than the ills we flew from without counting the cost of doing so. How do the nearly-100 per cent of retirees who didn’t die of Covid feel about their pension funds’ plummeting value and their rising cost of living amid spiraling inflation right now? If you think temporary collapse of hospital ICU systems sounds bad, try to imagine the collapse of civil order that would result from sovereign nations’ treasuries defaulting on their debts.
I’m not trying to be needlessly provocative, and I don’t claim to be able to settle any of these questions myself. They do need to be settled, however, not swept aside in some forgetful “amnesty.”