In Brief: Time to Reclaim the Right to Choose
When it comes to COVID-19, the right balance of personal liberty and public safety is for the public to decide.
Mario Loyola, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, offers what has become all too uncommon in the last 18 months: common sense about COVID.
High levels of immunity (from both vaccination and people who recovered from infection) have not slowed down the spread of the virus in successive waves of variants, and likely never will, because the virus has become endemic. … Getting vaccinated will protect you, but will not meaningfully increase protections for those around you who are susceptible to infection. If they’re susceptible, they’re going to get it sooner or later, because the virus is already too widespread in too many variants, and it’s spreading even among people who are vaccinated.
… People do lots of things that impose costs on society as a whole; for example, driving. Not only does every additional car on the road add to the risks faced by other drivers, but if you get into a car accident, society will have to spend money healing you and the others involved. Society is full of regulations designed to balance personal freedom and public safety. And as I argued … near the start of the pandemic, it is the public, not experts, who ultimately decide where the balance should be struck.
Risk is there, but it’s not equal:
While it is true that going about town unvaccinated increases your chances of carrying the disease, and hence of spreading it to others, other people do not have an evenly distributed chance of getting it from you. On the contrary. Many are vaccinated, and many others have had COVID-19 and recovered from it; those two groups are fairly immune to getting infected but are almost totally immune to severe illness if they do get infected. That’s why … the vast majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.
But even among those who have no immunity, the susceptibility to severe disease is highly concentrated in specific groups, chiefly the very elderly and those with significant cardiovascular or respiratory conditions. For the vast majority of people, COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu or common cold; among children, studies suggest it is actually less dangerous than the flu.
Loyola discusses other situations where society has dealt with tradeoffs, such as the introduction of cars and how to take care of pedestrians. But he also acknowledges that, for the last few months, COVID has been “the leading cause of death in the U.S.” So the question then is how to mitigate that with policy.
There was, one study said, “virtually no correlation between severity of lockdowns and rates of infection or death.” Meanwhile, “Masks reduce the risk of infection, but mostly for others, not for the mask-wearer, as the CDC has explained.” Finally, “Among the unvaccinated and vaccinated alike, those who are infected but asymptomatic are much less likely to infect others than those with symptoms. And among the small number of those who are vaccinated and have suffered ‘breakthrough infections,’ the chances of infecting others if you are asymptomatic are close to zero, making a mockery of the CDC’s guidance that vaccinated people should continue to wear masks.”
What to conclude?
The bottom line is this. Given how unevenly the risk of severe disease is distributed in the population, and how unevenly the risk of infecting others is distributed even among the unvaccinated, it makes much more sense for at-risk people to focus on protecting themselves than for everyone else to adjust their behavior. There are things we can reasonably do to reduce the risks to others, but with a virus that has now gone from pandemic to endemic, and which will always be with us, the time has come to learn to live with it.
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