Now as we begin the third year of the COVID pandemic we can begin to evaluate public policy responses to it. Which is the polite way of saying that it is well past time to sift through the public policy wreckage and ask what went wrong and why.
Let us consider masking and vaccine mandates. For three years, compliments of the CDC, the public has been given changing and conflicting guidance on the efficacy and advisability of wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in its various iterations. For instance, at the beginning of the outbreak, the CDC argued against wearing masks saying that they were ineffective. In an e-mail obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request and subsequently published by Buzzfeed, CDC Director Anthony Fauci wrote the following:
“The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keep out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you.”
By April of 2020, Fauci had changed his tune. Now the CDC recommended that people wear face coverings “in public settings when around people outside their household, especially when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
By August of 2021, the new CDC Director Rochelle Walensky reiterated the call for universal indoor masking, including vaccinated Americans.
At a White House VOVID-19 briefing Dr. Walensky said (correctly) that “Our vaccines did exactly what they were supposed to do: prevent severe disease, hospitalization, and death.” She also said that “… masks will protect you and your family.” Later, on another occasion she said “We do encourage all Americans to wear a well-fitting mask to protect themselves and prevent the spread of COVID 19”.
Note what is going on here. First, there is the CDC claim that we are dealing with “a pandemic of the unvaccinated”. That is clearly not the case. With the introduction of the Omicron variant the number of breakthrough cases is so large that the claim has been obliterated. (To be fair, the Omicron variant had yet to be discovered when the CDC characterized the pandemic as being restricted to the unvaccinated). Second, the CDC has been moving the goal posts. They begin by claiming that vaccination in all but a few cases prevents infection. When that turns out not to be true they shift to arguing (correctly) that the vaccines are extraordinarily effective at preventing severe disease and death.
But then we have the next assertion, a favorite of President Biden’s, which is that since vaccinated people do not get infected (false) they can not transmit the virus to others (also false). Which leads to some interesting policy questions. (1) If vaccinated people can’t transmit the virus why are they required to mask? (2) What is the evidence that masking is really effective anyway?
The rationale for a masking requirement is that it helps prevent the transmission of the virus to innocent third parties—a negative externality in the parlance of public policy. So the initial questions are these: (1) what is the evidence that masking effectively prevents COVID-19 transmission; (2) what, if any, are the benefits of masking and do they outweigh the costs; and (3) why the necessity of coercion?
Whether masking provides any benefits at all is a highly contested proposition. There are for instance, studies that provide some evidence of lower levels of infection among groups people who wore face masks versus those who did not. The problem is that the claims asserting effectiveness in reducing virus transmission generally refer to infecting other people, not the mask wearer. If wearing a mask protects the wearer, there should be no need for coercion.
Further, the question of protection is crucially dependent on the type of mask, how it fits and the consistency with which it is worn. As a practical matter we are talking about adults in their everyday lives, not lab rats. It is unlikely that they are going to suit up to the CDC’s satisfaction for any length of time. On wearing cloth masks, for instance, Leana Wen a medical analyst for CNN, who also happens to be a vigorous supporter of coercive measures says this. “Don’t wear a cloth mask…Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of omicron.”
So sure, if you walk around town triple-masked, you may be less likely to be a virus spreader. And if you make a habit of wearing a hazmat suit, you are probably well-protected. But so what? As a practical matter that is not going to happen. Just like 5-year olds sitting in socially distanced grammar schools are not going to keep on wearing well-fitted N95 masks for hours on end. And the fact is that children are very unlikely to become infected and symptomatic anyway. For all we know, children may be getting infected by the score without getting sick, thereby building up natural immunity.
Which brings us to the question of vaccine mandates. If vaccinated people are incapable of transmitting the virus, it makes no sense to require them to wear masks. But vaccinated people are in fact capable of transmitting the virus. That fact alone obliterates the case for vaccine mandates. If you want to be protected against severe disease and death from COVID (and you should) then get vaccinated.
The unvaxxed may be taking foolish risks, but they themselves bear the consequences. Society as a whole is not threatened significantly more by the unvaxxed than the vaxxed. And not to put too fine a point in it, the CDC is essentially admitting that a zero COVID strategy is simply not possible. The disease is going to run its course and it will become endemic.
Nevertheless, the unvaccinated are being treated more and more like lepers with each passing day. Ezekiel Emmanuel President Biden’s bioethics advisor, advocates for denying unemployment benefits to workers who are fired for refusing to be vaccinated. So how widespread is this type of attitude?
A recent poll found that 59% of Democratic voters would favor a policy that would confine people to their homes except for emergencies if they refuse to get vaccinated. 48% of of Democratic voters said they thought federal and state governments should be be able to fine or imprison individuals who publicly question the efficacy of vaccines. 45% of Democrats would favor governments to require the same to be temporarily housed in designated facilities or locations. 47% of Democrats polled favored digital tracking of those refusing vaccination to ensure they are either quarantined or socially distancing. Astonishingly, 29% of Democrats would support temporarily removing parental custody of children if the parents refuse vaccination. By far, Democrats favored harsh compliance measures over Independents and Republicans. Poll details are here.
If the unvaccinated are mostly a danger only to themselves, or they don’t pose a risk to others materially greater than the vaxxed population, then why are they being treated like this? Fear mongering by progressives and their pals in the media account for most of the hysteria. But then, what is the point of all the fear mongering?
The goal is social control and the transformation of American society away from individual freedom, property rights and liberal market capitalism. Instead progressives wish to substitute collectivist state control with governance by benign “experts” who always get it right.
Except that even if all the experts were benign souls (and they are not) they face the problem of incomplete information. As Hayek demonstrated, they would never have enough information to make the right decisions. The eventual collapse of planned economies everywhere from the Soviet Union to Mozambique to Venezuela provides irrefutable evidence of this.
Human nature being what it is, central planning leads to authoritarian state control if it is not forcefully resisted. Fortunately, the American political system with its checks and balances, has for the most part successfully resisted the progressive trap. Partly because of this, progressives have been very busy trying to dismantle those institutions that protect Americans’ freedom to choose.
Progressivism should be vigorously resisted, in favor of the classical liberalism of the American Founding. Authoritarianism is not confined to the Right. As the Left has recently demonstrated, it is perfectly willing to trample on due process, norms and an independent judiciary to achieve its goals. They will almost certainly be booted out come this November. Replacing them with Donald Trump, should he choose to run, would just be more of the same.
It will be a difficult task to resurrect classical liberalism to meet the myriad of challenges we face. But we have done it before, and we can do it again.