By early August, data gathered from national wastewater testing suggested a new surge of Covid infections was upon us. That metric was reinforced by rising test positivity rates and a modest but observable increase in the number of Covid-related hospitalizations. In combination with the emergence of what epidemiologists are calling a “highly mutated” variant of the virus, New York State has reassumed a posture of “high alert,” with more states likely to follow suit.
With conspicuous alacrity, Covid’s reemergence was swiftly accompanied by the return of “the experts,” for whom humility in the face of unknowable circumstances is anathema and no precaution is too burdensome.
“I think, and I think everybody concurs, that this is very likely to be a neutralization antibody escape mutant, which means that will be harder for our bodies to protect us from infection with this variant,” computational biologist Bette Korber told CNN. For these experts, the logical — indeed, unavoidable — corollary to this assessment is that the sooner Americans restore mid-pandemic mitigation measures, the better.
“You should be wearing masks in crowded areas, especially during a surge,” University of Texas epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina told PBS Newshour this month. Yes, even at home, “if you want to reduce household transmission,” she advised. “It may be time to break out the masks against Covid,” CBS News wearily reported. If masking remains a voluntary exercise, however, it will be a fruitless effort. We should all be masked when “around people,” Los Angeles Times “utility journalism” editor Jessica Roy advised, because “they’re more effective when everyone wears one.”
The national public-health apparatus’s admonitions have not fallen on deaf ears — at least, when it comes to the Americans who still hang on the words of the public-health apparatus. Atlanta-based Morris Brown College has preemptively reimplemented some of the pandemic’s more onerous restrictions: mandatory masking indoors and out, save for staff who are “in their offices while alone,” social-distancing protocols, and an enforced proscription on social events. Some hospitals, including those associated with New York’s Syracuse University, have reimplemented masking provisions to preserve capacity. The Hollywood studio Lionsgate briefly reinstituted an involuntary masking and screening policy for its employees before retracting it amid national scrutiny, insisting that it was only following the direction of the L.A. County Department of Health.
The general cultural sympathies that are likely to dominate these environments — a Hollywood studio, a handful of teaching hospitals, and a liberal-arts college — provide some unmistakable clues about the sort of psychological disposition that appeals to draconian non-pharmaceutical interventions as a first resort. If any further clues were needed, the New York Times provided some in a dispatch graced with the following headline: “Covid closed the nation’s schools. Clean air can keep them open.”
Covid might have provided the initial impetus to close the nation’s schools to in-person education, but they stayed closed for longer in the U.S. — and longer still in the nation’s more culturally homogenous, wealthier enclaves – because certain special interests wanted them closed. Ventilation will not keep schools open; our collective resolve to never repeat the mistakes we made during the pandemic will. Indeed, since there appears to be little public appetite for sacrificing our children’s futures upon the altar of their elders’ anxiety, what purpose does the Times’ warning serve other than as an ultimatum to the nation’s parents? America’s teachers’ unions still have some unmet demands, the subtext reads. Do right by them, or the kids get it.
The charitable or naïve might be inclined to dismiss the significance of these calls for a return to the darkest days of the pandemic as mere curiosities. But the pandemic demonstrated that, while advocates of a perpetual mitigation strategy were a minority, they were a minority with disproportionate influence over American policy-makers. Their hectoring has not been and will not be ignored.
The Democratic lawmakers who are likely to be the most sensitive to the advice of the professionally anxious know they must balance that instinct against the tangible political disincentives associated with implementing the pandemic’s involuntary mitigation strategies. But memories are short, and the existential dread that could overtake the Democratic political class if a real surge materialized may very well militate against the party’s better judgment. We cannot assume the case against going back to 2020 makes itself.
Nor should we be afraid to make it ourselves. The pandemic’s restrictions weren’t just failures on their own terms, they had a profoundly destabilizing effect on the American social compact. Americans were locked indoors until the medical establishment declared racism a public-health crisis and protesting against it a nobler calling than social distancing, at which point the streets erupted in reptilian violence. America’s students were forsaken, with some unable to return to a normal classroom environment until this year. As a result, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that test scores among middle-school students have declined by an average of four points in reading and nine points in math since 2020. Beyond its highly dubious efficacy as a medical intervention, masking contributed to an epidemic of petty criminality, prompting New York City mayor Eric Adams to insist that we “need to stop allowing them to exploit the safety of the pandemic by wearing masks, committing crimes.”
In comments to CBS News, University of California, San Francisco, medical professor Dr. Robert Wachter described the battle against Covid as an unending challenge. “The virus is always lurking, waiting for openings,” he said, “so I think Covid is just going to be a bit of a roller coaster, probably forever.” This revealing comment presupposes little has changed since March 2020. But it has. By the fall of 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 96 percent of all Americans aged 16 and older had some immunity to Covid-19, acquired either naturally or through vaccination. Beyond that, we have ample evidence mandatory non-pharmaceutical interventions have enough undesirable second-order consequences and will inspire sufficient popular resistance to render them unviable. If the political class attempts to reimpose them in an act of desperation, the response from voters deserves to be utterly unforgiving.