Coronavirus: Three conditions for a pandemic “amnesty”

More and more experts are finally acknowledging the lockdown policies were a disaster.  In a stunning turn of events, The Atlantic proclaims the need for a pandemic amnesty to reduce existing tensions, but conservatives are in no mood to forgive and forget without a reckoning of some kind.  

Last week, a leading proponent of coronavirus lockdown policies, Emily Oster, took to The Atlantic to declare the need for a pandemic amnesty, that is the (largely conservative) opponents of these lockdown policies should forgive those who advocated for major disruptions in day-to-day life that came with tremendous costs to the economy, education, mental health, and more.  After detailing a few of the more egregious errors perpetrated by the public health establishment such as extended school closures and an obsession with social distancing that saw lone individuals arrested on the beach, Ms. Oster declared, “We have to put these fights aside and declare a pandemic amnesty. We can leave out the willful purveyors of actual misinformation while forgiving the hard calls that people had no choice but to make with imperfect knowledge.”  She continued, “We need to forgive the attacks, too. 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.’ It wasn’t pleasant, but feelings were high. And I certainly don’t need to dissect and rehash that time for the rest of my days.  Moving on is crucial now, because the pandemic created many problems that we still need to solve.”  Ultimately, Ms. Oster concluded, “The standard saying is that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. But dwelling on the mistakes of history can lead to a repetitive doom loop as well. Let’s acknowledge that we made complicated choices in the face of deep uncertainty, and then try to work together to build back and move forward.”

A few red herrings notwithstanding, Ms. Oster is clearly referring to progressive public health professionals, government officials, and their allies in the mainstream media, who savaged anyone who dared to disagree with their unproven, never before tried, and often draconian policies.  We know this because she began with an anecdote about her own family and how they’d developed a system to warn each other of possible breaches of social distancing while outside, wearing cloth masks.  “These precautions were totally misguided. In April 2020, no one got the coronavirus from passing someone else hiking. Outdoor transmission was vanishingly rare. Our cloth masks made out of old bandanas wouldn’t have done anything, anyway. But the thing is: We didn’t know.”  She also lamented how “schools in the U.S. were closed for too long” at “costs to students’ well being and educational progress that [were] high.”  This includes historical declines in test scores, especially for disadvantaged students, and an increase in student suicides.  She also cited data on vaccines, though oddly bypasses the false insistence that they stop the spread of the disease.  In Ms. Oster’s view, “Given the amount of uncertainty, almost every position was taken on every topic. And on every topic, someone was eventually proved right, and someone else was proved wrong. In some instances, the right people were right for the wrong reasons. In other instances, they had a prescient understanding of the available information.”  Overall, this is an absolutely stunning change of direction for a publication that previously declared attempts to reopen Georgia in the Spring of 2020 “an experiment in human sacrifice.”  Sadly, this type of demonization was relatively minor compared to progressives on Twitter literally cheering for the deaths of prominent conservatives and the unvaccinated.  At one point, it was a popular meme to insist that anyone unvaccinated should be left to die because of their own stupidity.  

The question before us now:  How are those who were savaged by Ms. Olster, her own publication, and the (mostly) progressive lockdown movement supposed to respond to this sudden mea culpa?  In one sense, it is undeniably positive that at least some who insisted on policies that proved an unprecedented combination of ineffective and disastrous are admitting the error of their ways, even if her article is tinged with obvious shots at former President Donald Trump and the necessary peons to the threat of “misinformation.”  For example, Ms. Oster still insists that President Trump recommended mainlining bleach to fight the virus, a complete and total falsehood.  She wrote, “Remember when the public-health community had to spend a lot of time and resources urging Americans not to inject themselves with bleach? That was bad. Misinformation was, and remains, a huge problem. But most errors were made by people who were working in earnest for the good of society.”  These criticisms aside, Ms. Oster is undeniably correct when she noted that continued battles over these and other issues “gobble up a lot of social energy and…drive the culture wars, especially on the internet. These discussions are heated, unpleasant and, ultimately, unproductive…Treating pandemic choices as a scorecard on which some people racked up more points than others is preventing us from moving forward.”  Many of my fellow conservatives, however, do not seem to be impressed and are in no mood for forgiveness after being demonized for two years.  Joy Pullman, writing for The Federalist, believes there can be no amnesty “without a reckoning.”  As she sees it, “Letting people off the hook isn’t amnesty. Amnesty requires an admission of guilt and a commitment to repairing the wrongs done.”  Ms. Pullman continued, “Now that we see that America’s next generation has been intellectually handicapped for life, that people will never forget being banned from holding their mom’s hand as she died, that it’s increasingly clear lockdowns will cause far more deaths than Covid, and that these experimental shots maybe have some terrifying side effects, it’s too much for Oster to accept that she played a part in legitimizing these obscenities. So her essay is just a cope. It won’t be the first.”

It is difficult to find any logical fault in Ms. Pullman’s reasoning.  In an ideal world, those who perpetrated these draconian policies and attempted to silence any and all dissent, would publicly admit their error and their guilt.  Practically, however, this is incredibly unlikely to happen.  I can assure you we are not going to see any apologies from Dr. Anthony Fauci and his cadre of real card carrying experts apologize to the American people, should they live a thousand years.  Dr. Fauci himself now claims he did not recommend any lockdowns at all.  The sad truth is that we must find a way to move on regardless.  To me, that means three things.  First, we must demand that our elected leaders commit to never instituting anything like these policies ever again, using vague, often unconstitutional emerging powers in awesome, untried ways without passing any legislation authorizing the measures.  We have little control over what unelected public health officials and other private-sector actors may do, but we can influence the actions of the politicians who actually implement the strategy.  Obviously, we cannot know what the future holds or what measures might be required in a hypothetical emergency, but we can say that any completely unproven strategy, especially those that have never before been tried and originated in a high school science experiment of all things, cannot be instituted by executive fiat.  One of the more tragic ironies of the lockdowns has always been that completely novel, untested ideas suddenly became scientific truths overnight and anyone who disagreed was the equivalent of a Neanderthal.  The reality, however, is that no one had ever mandated masking, social distancing, mass business and school closures, and more on such a scale in all of human history, and no one knew if any of it would work.  In essence, we conducted the largest public health experiment ever, but the real card carrying experts never admitted this was the case and they had no real idea what they were doing.  Instead, they insisted the science was “settled” and any disagreement was going to cause more death and destruction.  Even worse, we now know that at least some of them, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci said different things in private regarding measures like masking, where he told a former Democrat official traveling overseas that cloth masks weren’t effective in any email prior to the start of the pandemic.  We also know from the words of Dr. Deborah Birx herself that she was even willing to lie to the President of the United States and manipulate reports in support of these policies, despite their obvious flaws.  This can never be allowed to happen again:  Politicians must commit to voters that any strategy that would exercise such massive power over people originates properly in the legislature.

Second, we must renew our commitment to free speech and open debate.  This means two things.  First, politicians and public health officials must be committed to transparency.  There can be no more hidden data, private conversations that differ from public policy, or any of the other techniques used to stifle debate.  The situation was so dire during the pandemic that Dr. Anthony Fauci and his boss, former Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. France Collins, were personally discussing how to smear dissenters in private emails.  This is completely unacceptable.  The people have a right to know the whole truth from all sides of the debate, not the politically motivated version of it promulgated to advance a certain policy.  Second, politicians and public health officials must be forever barred from colluding with social media companies to police debates occurring on public forums.  Another  tragic irony of the pandemic is the near instantaneous rise of a completely flawed and misguided fact-checking industry deployed across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other channels.  In their zeal to combat “misinformation,” they suppressed the voices of even actual medical professionals discussing how they were treating their own patients, the sort of real-card carrying experts whose opinions are just as valid as Dr. Fauci’s or any other public health official.  Given the pace at which new information became available, this also had the odd effect of speech being banned one day that was perfectly acceptable the next.  There are countless examples on the origin of the virus, the efficacy of vaccines, and more.  In all of these cases, the truth was obvious:  There was no way to determine who was right or wrong at the time.  We simply didn’t have enough information to know whether the coronavirus originated in a lab or arose naturally for example, but somehow this didn’t prevent the social media companies from taking sides.  Sides which they frequently had to change.  The crushing of dissent was a pure political power play, perpetrated by politicians in collaboration with tech companies, but the underlying tragedy is that free and fair debate would have resulted in a better outcome, as it usually does.  Thus, we must never again fear the free exchange of ideas, competing in a public marketplace to identify optimal strategies.  

Lastly, we must collectively renew our commitment to the separation of powers under our form of government.  Much like free speech itself, we were frequently told that the United States was ill equipped to combat a pandemic because our constitution forbids the centralization of authority over all things.  Many wished we were more like China, where an all powerful central government could pursue all controlling policies without any checks and balances.  The organization of the United States into fifty unique states, however, allowed each individual governor and local elected officials to pursue their own unique policies, ensuring that disastrous decisions were limited in scope.  This resulted in states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas opening sooner and faster than their more progressive counterparts, protecting their economies and their students.  If the entire country were New York, however, and the disastrous decisions made there regarding nursing homes were applied across the land, the results would have been far worse.  The strength and flexibility of our system of government has been under appreciated for too long by a power hungry establishment.   We should instead fear its opposite:  The one size fits all strategy that resulted in so much collateral damage, and we should all be thankful that the American system of government implicitly limits how much control one single politician can have.  This is a feature of the system, not a flaw, and the reasons why should be indisputable at this point.  It is undeniably a good thing that the President cannot waive a wand and mandate vaccines, or lockdown the entire country on his or her own, however much the public health establishment might be clamoring for those things.  If President Trump or Biden had done either, the results would be even worse than they are today.  We should all be thankful for the wisdom of the Founders who recognized the danger of putting too much power in too few hands, and we should all commit to using the genius of our government in the future.

Ultimately, countries that thrive and prosper find a way to move forward after a crisis deepens divisions and political rancor.  A country cannot long survive in a state of perpetual verbal war over anything and everything; a combination of forgiveness and grace is needed on both sides.  Ms. Oster may be writing as a coping mechanism, and she may fall short of fully accepting the role of many like her in the worst excesses of our pandemic response.  At the same time,  she is offering an opportunity to move forward and conservatives like myself would do well to consider accepting the olive branch.  We cannot roll back time and change these decisions, or erase the horrible things that were said.  We can, however, recommit to the very things that make this country great, and ensure any future emergency is met by taking full advantage of our government and way of life. A commitment to that would be a positive achievement in its own right.

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