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May 7, 2021

In Brief: ‘Institutionalized’ by COVID

“These walls are funny. First you hate them, then you get used to them. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them.”

National Review Online editor Philip Klein argues that continued enforcement of stringent COVID protocols signal that something deeper is going on than merely worrying about the pandemic.

In the film The Shawshank Redemption, an elderly character named Brooks gets released after 50 years in prison. Instead of celebrating his release, however, he is tentative — and shortly after experiencing the freedom of the outside world, he hangs himself.

“These walls are funny,” Morgan Freeman’s character Red explains to his fellow prisoners as they process the news. “First you hate them, then you get used to them. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s ‘institutionalized.’”

As the vaccine has brought the promise of liberation from a year of masks, lockdowns, canceled travel plans, and forgone family visits, there is a contingent of Americans who are simply not prepared to move on. They have somehow gotten used to the restrictions and are wary of returning to their pre-COVID-19 lives. In short, they’ve become “institutionalized.”

Klein relates a couple of stories to show what he means — the husband and wife who’ve been fully vaccinated, but still refuse to get on a plane, or the vaccinated grandmother who will wait to see her grandchildren until they are vaccinated. The likelihood of any risk in either scenario is incredibly low. And yet…

It would be one thing if these attitudes were confined to a few random risk-averse people. But their approach is a reflection of the message being sent by leaders and public-health officials. The vaccinated President Biden is often seen wearing a mask outside, and he said recently that it was a “patriotic responsibility” for Americans to wear masks indefinitely, regardless of their vaccination status. Anthony Fauci, who has been fully vaccinated for months, has said he won’t go to restaurants or movie theaters. “I don’t think I would — even if I’m vaccinated — go into an indoor, crowded place where people are not wearing masks,” he said. He also said, “I don’t really see myself going on any fun trips for a while.”

There are those who may argue that if some people are being extra cautious or government officials are making non-binding statements, it doesn’t directly affect those who want to ease up on the precautions. But the problem is that we are in the midst of a destructive feedback loop. Leaders make statements that overstate the current risk of COVID-19, which ends up guiding the decisions of local officials, and it also makes people more nervous about returning to normal. The people who are nervous remain less likely to pressure local officials to change irrational policies.

That brings him back to the psychology of it all:

The common thread in the “institutionalized” concept of COVID-19 is a disproportionate emphasis on low probability events and unknowns. People always take on some degree of risk in their lives. They could die in a car accident, but they still drive. They could drown, but they still swim. In 2019, there were 93,700 preventable injury deaths occurring in Americans’ own homes.

It is true that when it first arrived, COVID-19 presented an unacceptable risk, especially to many vulnerable populations. But with the exceedingly high vaccination rates among the most vulnerable, the situation is dramatically different today. Drastic measures that may have once been justified no longer make any sense, because the risk calculus has changed.

He concludes:

People should celebrate the miracle of these vaccines, embrace their liberation from COVID-19 prison, and get on with their lives.

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