At Atlantic, Emily Oster asks if we can forgive and forget what we said and did each other during the Covid-pandemic-19. On the issues of masks, school closures and the effectiveness of this or that vaccine, some got it right and others got it wrong. But discussing it forever is a waste of time, she says. The headline is “Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty”.
No thanks. We don’t want that. And I don’t think even Emily Oster should want that. Frankly, Oster herself deserves credit for having tried, in the pandemic, to bring people to reason about the harm that school closures did to children.
An amnesty means raising your hands in the air and simply declaring something that all adults should already know: men and institutions are fallible. But we need more forensic accountability for our institutions, and it is hoped (perhaps in vain) that a Republican Congress will take a hard look at the FDA. and the CDC [sigla em inglês para Centro de Controle e Prevenção de Doenças] for their responses to the pandemic. And we will need much better thinking to come from journalists, experts and the public.
A few examples should suffice. Oster writes: “As of April of 19, no one caught Covid from crossing a pedestrian. Outdoor transmission was extremely rare. Our makeshift cloth masks did not would be useless anyway. But the thing is, we didn’t know.”
It’s true that most of the public didn’t know (although some were with the back foot with the announcements about Covid from the beginning). I remember that, in the very first days, frightened by the terrible tests in Wuhan and northern Italy, we started making cloth masks in my house. But experts already knew , including Dr. Anthony Fauci. And so he told the people, in the program 60 Minutes, that drugstore masks were useless. Scientists like Fauci were citing decent studies already available on the dubious effectiveness of cloth masks. Only later did Fauci change his mind and pretend he lied to protect the stock of PPE for frontline workers. He himself began to wear masks, but hinted at his real belief by calling them “symbols” of the kind of thing we should do.
No we need amnesty here. Nor for Fauci’s admission to the New York Times that he would overshadow his own views on “herd immunity” based on what he thought it would be the direction of public opinion. We need to understand the role of this conscious illusion (the “noble lie”) in public health communication. We should investigate him precisely because, when he failed to achieve his end, he inspired reaction. We need to investigate it because perhaps the old-fashioned lower-r Republicans are correct, and the very practice of illusion by experts is an offense against self-government. Perhaps we need to relearn the lesson of old-fashioned moralists that even the practice of the noble lie tends to corrupt men and their institutions. [Republicano com r minúsculo refere-se ao adjetivo, em vez do nome próprio do Partido Republicano. “Nobre mentira” é uma expressão de Platão, que a defende em sua república governada pelo Rei Filósofo. (N. t.)]
Oster writes that, “given the amount of uncertainty, almost every position has been taken on every issue”. Very good. She continues: “Whoever got it right for any reason may want to gloat. Whoever was wrong for any reason can get defensive and retroact to a position that doesn’t match the facts. [. . .] These discussions are hot, unpleasant and, in the end, eggs, unproductive. In the face of so much uncertainty, every hit had a big help from luck”.
It’s obvious that some tried to deceive and made terrible allegations irresponsible. Remember when public health personnel spent a lot of time and money telling citizens not to inject themselves with bleach because President Trump would have recommended that treatment — when in fact, he never did?
I also remember that Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance led a false scientific consensus against the laboratory leak theory by bribing a scientific journal in an unethical way. In doing so, it managed to tip the balance towards progressive opinion, which had the initial effect of altering the way social media governed and censored expression on a billion-user base.
No, I don’t want to amnesty agents as bad as this one.
A cry for amnesty would prevent us from learning lessons. My boss, who is no expert in science, was able to write this in April of 2022 very confidently:
“Of all the types of closures, schoolchildren are by far the most harmful to society. Younger children have no space for their social and emotional development. Prolonged closures inhibit the ability of older children to meet the demands of their grade level. Parents who are juggling homeschooling and working from home are unable to replicate the instruction a child would receive on a school day . The closures have also increased the learning gap between the wealthiest households, with more resources and the ability to work from home, and those without that option.”
Why was he so right, while the New York Times and government people were so wrong ? The lesson is simple. Even in a crisis, we must not be swallowed up in one gulp by the “thing of the moment”. We did not start over at Year Zero to maintain our common sense and reasonableness.
Oster is of course right in saying that millions of people have erred in prudential matters relating to freedom and security. And of course she is right that our political predispositions and commitments tend to shape the way we weigh the evidence that points one way against that that points the other way.
But the issues in the pandemic weren’t just factual disputes about a fast-evolving disease. There were also disputes over whether the Constitution still mattered. Think of Bill de Blasio telling Christians, Jews and believers of other faiths that they had to submit to city rules that prohibited gatherings of ten or more people, even when he himself violated them by publicly supporting the George Floyd protests.
Amnesty this? No way.
© 2022 National Review. Published with permission. Original in English.