November 21, 2022

Before Declaring a Pandemic Amnesty, We Need a Pandemic Mea Culpa

Before there can be a reconciliation, there needs to be an accounting.

The outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020 set off not just a pandemic that caused 1 million deaths in the United States but also an eruption of anger, blame, and bitterness that widened even further the cracks in American society. In a recent essay for The Atlantic, Brown University economist Emily Oster calls for an end to this era of bad feelings, advising us to let bygones be bygones when it comes to COVID-19.

“Let’s declare a pandemic amnesty,” argues Oster, who has written extensively about the coronavirus and its effects. “We need to forgive one another for what we did and said when we were in the dark about COVID.”

There is no question that in dealing with the pandemic, a lot of people got a lot of things wrong. But “most errors were made by people who were working in earnest for the good of society,” Oster says. “In the face of so much uncertainty, getting something right had a hefty element of luck [and] getting something wrong wasn’t a moral failing. Treating pandemic choices as a scorecard on which some people racked up more points than others is preventing us from moving forward.”

As one who believes in not holding grudges, I appreciate the impulse behind Oster’s call. We should strive for less recrimination and more forgiveness. The last thing Americans need is to be trapped in what Oster describes as “a repetitive doom loop,” endlessly rehashing the blunders and battles of the past two and a half years. A national post-pandemic reconciliation would indeed be a blessing.

But Oster omits an essential step. Before there can be a reconciliation, there needs to be an accounting. Those who messed up must reckon with how they went wrong. Politicians and public health authorities whose decisions caused serious harm need to acknowledge what happened.

In the early months of the pandemic, when hospitalizations and death rates were rising and officials were desperate to curb infections, Americans were inundated with bad information. In retrospect, it was absurd to tell people to disinfect their mail, to wear masks outdoors even when alone, and to stay away from beaches and parks. Most of us, I imagine, would be happy to adopt a forgive-and-forget attitude toward those dumb rules and the well-intended zealots who promoted them.

But other rules, restrictions, and reactions were far more consequential.

It is not a small thing to ask Americans to “move on” from — for example — the sweeping and prolonged shutdown of the nation’s schools. That was an educational calamity that resulted in unprecedented learning loss and will wreak an economic toll on millions of students for years to come. Early on it was clear that the risk of spreading COVID in classrooms was extremely low and that keeping schools closed was a grave mistake. Yet policy makers in many states refused to budge, and powerful teachers unions threatened to strike to prevent the resumption of classroom instruction.

Those who challenged school closures were often vilified in the most unhinged and poisonous terms. Oster herself was on the receiving end of such invective. “Because I thought schools should reopen and argued that kids as a group were not at high risk, I was called a ‘teacher killer’ and a ‘génocidaire,’” she writes. The Chicago Teachers Union declared that people pushing to reopen schools were motivated by “sexism, racism, and misogyny.” A writer in The Washington Post amplified that smear with a long lecture on the “racist effects” of bringing students back to classrooms.

Given the devastating impact of school shutdowns and the vicious abuse heaped on so many who criticized that policy, any talk of a “pandemic amnesty” now is premature. First must come a mea culpa by those who, it is now clear, were in the wrong. The only way for them to show they have learned the lesson, after all, is to candidly confront their bad judgment and acknowledge the good faith of their critics. Absent that, an “amnesty” would amount to an invitation to act just as high-handedly in the next crisis.

What was true of school closures was true of other calamitous pandemic policies. Few self-inflicted disasters in US history compare to the coast-to-coast lockdown that destroyed 21 million jobs in the space of a few weeks, wiped out countless businesses, drastically worsened numerous social ills, and severely harmed public health in areas ranging from mental illness to missed cancer diagnoses to deaths from untreated heart disease. To enforce lockdowns, governors imposed emergency decrees and trampled civil liberties. For months, every house of worship in the nation was shuttered. Social distancing and mask mandates were enforced with a ruthlessness that at times turned tyrannical.

Through it all, many who challenged conventional wisdom found themselves ostracized, demonized, or censored. After three respected epidemiologists released their “Great Barrington Declaration,” which recommended letting most Americans resume normal life while focusing on protecting individuals most at risk from the virus, they were engulfed in a firestorm of denunciation. That firestorm, it later emerged, was fueled behind the scenes by the federal government’s top public health officials — Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. For such behavior, amnesty is not an ethical response.

Similarly, when the governors of some states broke away from the lockdown mindset, reopening restaurants and blocking mask mandates, they were portrayed as willful murderers embarked on a killing spree. Today we know that states that moved quickly to restore normal life, such as Florida, experienced pretty much the same COVID outcomes as those that maintained pandemic restrictions for far longer, such as California.

As Oster notes, the pandemic created many problems that we still need to solve. Americans and their political leaders need to focus on the future. But that isn’t an argument for forgetting the recent past. If anything, it is an argument for scrutinizing the recent past with open minds — for encouraging all parties to recognize the injustices that occurred, the harms that could have been avoided, and the cruel rhetoric that made the crisis so much uglier.

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