With No End Game In Sight, And Contradictory Predictions, People Are Naturally Very Hesitant To Surrender Freedoms
Back in junior high school, our daily lunch consisted of 30 minutes of eating lunch, followed by 30 minutes for recess – where we would play outside in the schoolyard, or in the school gym if the weather didn’t cooperate. The teachers, unsurprisingly, hated this. When they would bring us back to the classroom after recess, it was impossible to get us 12- and 13-year-olds to settle down to continue with the school day. It sometimes took ten to fifteen minutes just to get the class to simmer down enough to even try to continue with lessons. Sometimes, as my sixth-grade English teacher Ms. Klaus said, it felt like the school day was basically over after lunch, “we were as good as dismissed at 12:15”
The teachers fought to keep us in the classrooms during the entire lunch period, theorizing that it was easier for them to regain control of the class if we hadn’t just been running around playing for 30 minutes. It was a controversial move, with our physical education teacher arguing it was unhealthy to keep us at our desks for six hours a day, but the principal and other teachers argued it would help curb disciplinary issues and rowdiness. As students, we obviously protested, and when our parents heard of this, they made a big stink at PTA meetings.
In November 1995, the teachers got the backing of the principal in their fight to cancel recess. As the weather turned cooler, we would stay in the classroom until Spring, and if we behaved and just did what they asked, we would have recess back in the Spring when the weather warms up.
Privately, though they had a different plan.
At one PTA meeting, – I often attended as my mother was on the executive board – the teacher representative explained that the goal was to “adjust” the students to “a new normal;” being inside during the entire lunch period.
“Ultimately,” Mrs. Monaco, the teacher representative, said. “We hope that by the Spring, the kids are so used to being the class that they won’t even think about going back outside.”
Obviously that didn’t happen, and when April rolled around and we were told we couldn’t go outside during lunch for recess on the first 70-degree Spring day, the result was a number of angry and resentful preteens who no longer trusted and respected our teachers. In a Catholic School setting though, teachers don’t need to care. They don’t need the respect of the students, only the obedience.
I tell this story because it has been in my mind a lot during this pandemic. I believe a similar dynamic is playing out around COVID-19 public health guidelines. My junior high school class were a group of naive, and powerless, students who had no choice but to listen to our teachers and trust them. But the “bait-in-switch” we experienced from losing recess left a bitter taste in our mouths that some of us still talk about today.
Adults all over the world have had these experiences and can sense when they feel like they’re being misled, and some of the rhetoric coming out of public health experts, and government officials, are feeding conspiracy theories that we are being treated to a bait-and-switch; that the mandates and curtailing of public life are efforts to slow walk us into a dystopian future where isolation and masking are how we live. That, I believe based on my own experiences and conversations with others, is what is leading people to no longer adhere strictly to mitigation efforts. Even if people are willing to wear masks or stay home, don’t travel, and don’t gather with friends and family, there’s a feeling that if we voluntarily give these up and continue to give them up, those joys could be lost forever. How? Well, just look at some of the messaging coming from experts.
Back in May, one expert, who has now blocked me on Twitter, suggested “If I had my way, I’d close bars forever,” explaining that congregate settings like bars and nightclubs are responsible for annual flu outbreaks that kill tens of thousands of people a year. After an article came out in July that noted COVID-19 mitigation efforts in South America helped reduce the flu to record low levels, some experts began calling for adopting those mitigation efforts annually to reduce flu cases – even though the mitigation efforts credited in the article were lockdowns and school closures, things that aren’t realistic options every winter.
Indeed, the timeline and end game has also changed. When this started, we heard that some restrictions may be possible until a vaccine, a timeline that could be 12-18 months, but now, as vaccines go from being years to only months away, we are now being told that social distancing and mask wearing will have go on beyond a vaccine. Perhaps, as one editorial in The Lancet suggested last week, permanently. Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC Director under President Barack Obama, has even suggested that we may have to “permanently adapt our lives” to COVID-19, because even beyond a vaccine, there will always be a small percentage of the population at perpetual risk of serious illness. Many experts have been touting the “Swiss cheese” model, which explains mitigation efforts through the image of multiple slices of Swiss cheese stacked horizontal next to each other. The virus can get through the holes in the first or second piece of cheese, but the more pieces, the less there’s a clear path for the virus to get through as the holes in cheese slices are not all in the same place. Social distancing, banning mass gatherings and mask wearing are all pieces of Swiss cheese in this model, along with vaccination. Remove even one of the pieces and the virus has an easier time getting through.
The addition of vaccination to the model comes along with messaging from the very top, World Health Organization itself, that vaccines will not be “the silver bullet” that would end the pandemic. There’s no real answer on what is.
Even the trusted and popular Dr. Anthony Fauci himself has come out and made cryptic remarks that seem to imply a dystopian future, suggesting that “we can never let up public health measures” like social distancing and mask-wearing. He no longer talks about returning to normal, rather “a semblance of normalcy,” which he now says won’t come until the end of 2021. He had previous said Summer of 2021 as recently as July.
Meanwhile, experts have come to the conclusion that COVID-19 will be endemic, if it isn’t already, and will never be eradicated. Dr. Mike Ryan from the WHO, Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s Health Commissioner and even Fauci himself have all admitted they believe the virus can never be eradicated, and we’re in for years of mitigation, at best, even if we all take the same precautions now.
While I continue to wear a mask in public places, avoid crowds, keep my bubble small and stay home as much as possible, others in my social circle have not. Some of what has been said above has been brought up by these folks as reasons they have given up on strict measures and became reclaiming normalcy, even with the risk of COVID-19 infection ever present. Two of whom are my parents, who are just finishing up a road trip to Maine that I desperately asked them to forego this year.
“If we don’t do it this year,” my mother said. “When can we do it? They’re going to tell us it isn’t safe next year either.”
I couldn’t really point her to anybody who suggested when and if it would ever be truly “safe” for her to do the things she enjoys again. They decided minor precautions were enough and took their vacation.
Another friend, a diabetic who championed #StayHomeSaveLives in the Spring, recently went on vacation with several friends to Florida. What convinced her to do it was having heard a doctor on TV saying people with high risk co-morbidities, like herself, would “have to face an indefinitely altered quality of life.”
“What point is there to live if I can’t enjoy it,” she said, adding that she was getting to the point where it almost seemed better to take her chances with COVID-19.
In July, I wrote a piece about how I felt like shifting timelines and inconsistently enforced guidelines were leading people to lose trust in science and government and do their own risk assessments. I think that problem has only exacerbated since then, as more and more experts begin hinting around the possibility of permanent social distancing and mitigation. I honestly can’t blame them for feeing scammed, and for losing trust in both experts and the state. If no one can give us a clear vision on what the way out is, everyone will just chart a course one for his or herself. The end result is a worsening pandemic like we’re currently experiencing.
Others have suggested these restrictions are a form of social engineering, like the cancellation of recess in junior high. Once we get used to not doing to crowded gatherings and wearing a mask, it would be easier to make it permanent and then enact even more restrictions. Much like my classmates and I at the end of second grade, there is a growing distrust and sense that if we cooperate with these guidelines, even if we agree with them, we will never get what we gave up back when the pandemic ends. They will find a reason – whether it be the flu or not-fully effective vaccines – to permanent institute these measures.
To be honest, I don’t believe that’s what will ultimately happen. It would go against human nature and the economic and social cost would eventually surpass that of COVID-19. Democracies of the world will need to show citizens that they can close the door on this crisis and return life to a social and economic normal in order to get reelected, or those who don’t will be replaced by government that will, high risk or not. But I do believe many of the experts that we trust will fall on the side of “permanently altered way of life” when we reach the phase of the pandemic where there are mass vaccinations and lowering cases. When they do, those who have been imploring family and friends to trust their advice and follow it in order to get past this and go back to normal life, are going to left with egg on their faces. I don’t plan on being one of them.