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Two Years of Covidiocy

How the pandemic became part of the culture wars and brought out the dumb in our polarized politics.
March 16, 2022
Two Years of Covidiocy
(Composite, Photos: Shutterstock)

A little over two years ago, on March 6, 2020, I was in Manhattan on a cold and wet evening attending what would turn out to be my last public event for a very long time: a Times Center panel discussion on the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. The magazine’s editor-in-chief opened by thanking everyone in attendance for coming to the event, “braving the bad weather and the coronavirus.” Everyone laughed. Little did we know.

By that time, I was certainly aware of COVID-19 as a potentially serious problem. My mother and I had canceled, on her doctor’s advice, a planned trip to Berlin (which, had we made it, would have left us scrambling to get home after the travel restrictions were imposed on March 11). Already at the beginning of February, my mother, a piano teacher who has many Chinese American students, was advised by one student’s parent to avoid contact with anyone who had recently traveled to China. It can’t hurt to be careful, I told her. And yet on that evening in New York it never occurred to me that I was taking a risk by using the subway or by being in a crowded auditorium and mingling with people after the event.

On the same day, March 6, reports on a leaked document from a February webinar hosted by the American Hospital Association on confronting the threat of what was then still widely called “the novel coronavirus” caused a flurry of panic on social media. Some experts were projecting as many as 96 million cases in the United States, 4.8 million hospitalizations, and 480,000 deaths. At the time, with fewer than 200 identified COVID-19 cases—not deaths—in the entire country, those figures seemed preposterously high. For the record, I was among those telling people not to overreact, pointing out that other estimates were much rosier.

I spoke that week to a friend who works in biomedical research and who had initially been skeptical that the new coronavirus posed a grave threat. The reports from northern Italy had changed her mind. “This is going to be very bad,” she told me.

A few days later, we were in a state of emergency. My mom and I were still talking about using the credit for our canceled tickets to Berlin to go to London at the end of April; there were some London Symphony Orchestra concerts we wanted to attend, as well as an acclaimed new production of Uncle Vanya, and surely by then this coronavirus thing would have blown over.

By the end of April, we were debating whether it was safe to go to Trader Joe’s.

Almost from the very beginning, responses to COVID-19 in the United States were (like everything else these days) polarized along political lines. Being Team Blue meant that you saw COVID as a very serious threat and supported drastic measures to contain and mitigate its spread. Being Team Red meant that you thought COVID wasn’t that big a deal and that its danger was being overhyped by safety freaks, people who wanted to give the government extraordinary powers, and Democrats who wanted to weaponize the pandemic to bring down Donald Trump. Obviously, not everyone fell neatly into those categories; but the tendency was undeniable. Here at The Bulwark in April 2020, Gabriel Schoenfeld documented the sorry record of people on the right—not just Fox News carnival barkers like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, but such soi-disant intellectuals as Roger Kimball and Heather Mac Donald—minimizing the pandemic and mocking those who took it seriously. Kimball performed a particularly spectacular self-beclowning in a March 14, 2020 American Greatness column in which he mocked the idea of an emergency and sneered that “a total of 60 people—60!—have died from the scourge of the Wuhan virus. . . . This really is a pandemic akin to the Black Death.” He confidently predicted that, while widespread testing might uncover more cases, “What won’t go up much is the number of fatalities.”

Chronicling Team Red covidiocy could easily fill a book: The estimate from Hoover Institution senior fellow Richard Epstein, a law professor, that just 500 Americans would die of COVID—followed by his comically desperate attempts to say he had really meant 5,000. The claims by talk-radio king Rush Limbaugh that COVID was just “the common cold” and was being overhyped by the media as part of “an effort to bring down Trump.” Trump’s rant at a rally about the Democrats’ “new hoax” and about the flu being far worse. (Yes, if you pick apart his word salad, he technically didn’t call the disease a hoax, only claims that he was mishandling it; but it’s ridiculous to deny that such talk boosted the “COVID hoax” narratives.) The #PlanDemic and #DemPanic hashtags (which still exist, but don’t look if you want to avoid brain damage). The war cries to “liberate” locked-down states. The obsessions with alleged miracle drugs, especially hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. The Anthony Fauci Derangement Syndrome. The anti-vaccine propaganda and scare tactics peddled by the likes of Tucker Carlson.

This is not to say that Team Blue has been entirely faultless. Some accusations leveled at the Trump administration were baseless or exaggerated. For instance, it’s not true that (as Joe Biden charged, along with a number of media outlets) the Trump administration rejected COVID-19 test kits offered by the World Health Organization. It’s also far from certain that, as many Trump critics suggested, the situation was made worse by the 2018 shutdown of the National Security Council’s office for global health security, instituted two years earlier under Barack Obama; as has pointed out, its functions (and members) were mostly shifted to other units. More broadly, the idea that the COVID death toll in the United States equals blood on Trump’s hands seems overdramatic considering how many countries not led by Trump also fared badly—and how effectively the Trump administration facilitated the rapid development and production of vaccines. Did Trump’s feckless rhetoric and lack of leadership encourage irresponsible behavior with regard to social distancing and vaccination and thus cost lives? Most likely; but counterfactuals are always iffy, and it’s difficult to say with any confidence how different the outcomes would have been under a different president.

It is also true that political polarization caused many people to circle the wagons around COVID mitigation strategies that needed to be questioned—such as widespread school closures. (Ironically, the effects of these measures should have been of particular concern to progressives concerned with equity: Distance learning seems to have had particularly negative outcomes for low-income kids with few resources at home, disproportionately racial minorities, and school closures have also pushed many mothers out of the workforce.) And there is some truth to the charge that members of the “cognitive elite” who could easily do their jobs from home enthusiastically supported lockdown measures without giving much thought to their effects on the livelihood of many less privileged men and women.

But this really isn’t a “both sides” issue. Yes, the “COVID hawks” made their share of errors and missteps. No, none of it was comparable to the indecency of encouraging people to disregard the risk of COVID infection, flout safety measures, and avoid vaccination, or the insanity of conspiracy theories about the pandemic as a plan by a globalist cabal to shut down the economy, seize power, and tamper with people’s DNA through vaccination.

Proponents of limited government and individual liberty have had valid reasons to worry about the vast expansion of government power and the drastic curbs imposed on people’s personal freedoms for the sake of combating the pandemic. The belief that politicians and bureaucrats don’t like to relinquish powers that are meant to be temporary has been often vindicated in the past. Critical voices questioning the usefulness or the ethics of various mandates and prohibitions are never more essential than in the kinds of crises that create a strong temptation to trade freedom for safety.

This is especially true given that some progressives did, by their own admission, want to use the pandemic as an opportunity for a permanent shift away from what they saw as excessive individualism. As Canada went into lockdown in March 2020, Toronto Star columnist Shree Paradkar pointed to drastic measures taken in the public and private sectors as examples of how “radical change” can happen quickly with proper motivation. Paradkar exultantly announced that Canada had “discovered collectivism” and that feminists, anti-racism activists, and “equity leaders” were “getting an unexpected glimpse into what an actual enforcement of their demands would look like.” You don’t need to be particularly right-wing to find such rhetoric disturbing.

More recently, in a New York magazine essay discussing New York Times writer David Leonhardt, a strong proponent of the view that vaccination should enable a transition from mitigation strategies to normalization, left-wing journalist Sam Adler-Bell acknowledged that many progressives dislike Leonhardt’s argument because they had hoped for a COVID-driven shift toward a different social and political order better grounded on communal values. Instead, writes Adler-Bell, normalization means a return to “the individualized logic of the American moral imagination” in which people are responsible for the consequences of their own choices.

This is where center-right commentators—libertarian, conservative, or moderate—can make the counterargument that it would be perverse to build our social order around a once-in-a-century pandemic and to apply the logic of emergencies to everyday life. While “individualized” morality certainly allows for obligations to others, government action that broadly and drastically curbs citizens’ personal freedom for the benefit of those who either forgo vaccination or are at unusually high risk for deadly infections (pandemic-related or not) is a troubling form of supposedly benevolent authoritarianism. It also means, as Leonhardt points out, inflicting pain on some to spare others.

But making such a case requires an honest assessment of facts and tradeoffs, rather than crying “fascism!” over social distancing and masking mandates at the height at the pandemic—when COVID mortality rates were alarmingly high, no vaccine was on the horizon, effective treatments were nonexistent, and the nature and consequences of the disease were only beginning to be understood. By now the COVID-hawkish states have dropped virtually all COVID restrictions. And some of the more dramatic claims of a COVID-paved road to serfdom were always based on hysteria and misinformation. In April 2020, for example, the rumor went around that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had banned all sales of seeds and gardening supplies. Some on right-wing Twitter saw an insidious tyrannical plot: “Whitmer has taken actions to prohibit people from being self sufficient on their own land,” wrote one self-identified “post-conservative anti-Communist.” In fact, the new regulations required cordoning off nonessential sections of large stores (over 50,000 square feet), including garden centers and plant nurseries, in order to limit indoor contacts. There was no ban on buying seeds, bulbs, or gardening supplies online or in smaller stores. One could debate whether the policy made sense, but a dastardly attack on the self-sufficiency of Michiganders it was not.

How well lockdowns, mask mandates, and other pre-vaccination COVID-19 mitigation strategies worked in reducing the spread of the virus and the resulting deaths is a massively complicated question. In January, a research review and analysis published under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise concluded that lockdowns had a minimal effect on saving lives; the paper sparked intense polemics, and the authors were accused of political bias, especially since their conclusions often differed from those of the researchers whose work they reviewed. But leaving aside questions of bias and complicated disagreements about methodology and data-crunching, the paper is far more nuanced than one would know from the gleeful “lockdowns are useless!” reports and reactions on the right. For one thing, the authors found that, while stay-at-home orders and school closures did not reduce COVID-19 mortality, nonessential business closures apparently did—and so did masking mandates, though this last result was based on a very limited sample of studies.

The paper stressed that one reason to be skeptical of the benefits of lockdowns is that the effects of government orders can be difficult to disentangle from those of voluntary behavior modifications, such as avoiding social gatherings and close contact with others. This is hardly the same as proposals to just get on with normal life and defy the virus while shielding the elderly and those with high-risk medical conditions—hardly a tenable strategy considering how many people in those groups live in the same households as the young and the healthy.

The COVID culture wars have not abated in the spring of 2022, despite being pushed into the background by Russia’s war in Ukraine—and made far less urgent by the fact that COVID-19 has become (at least for now) far less scary, due to the milder Omicron strain and to the availability of vaccines and treatments.

Yes, some people, generally more on the progressive side, are still in “masks forever” mode, either out of an ingrained habit of caution or because they still feel the need to display proof of “taking COVID seriously” as a badge of progressive identity.

But if they’re still stuck in the spring of 2020, what is there to say of those on the right who are still hellbent on proving that the pandemic was always a lot of hype? We get, for instance, brilliant takes like this:

Of course, other Team Red members had confidently predicted that COVID would “disappear” after the 2021 presidential election, but never mind. Also, never mind that American elections and the Democrats’ bad polling fail to explain why most European countries have also been dropping pandemic-related restrictions.

To many on Team Red, it’s not enough that everything has been reopened; the enemy must be browbeaten into admitting that the lockdowns were useless or downright criminal, that mainstream narratives about COVID were a scam, and the skeptics are fully vindicated.

Conservative pundit and Kentucky State University political scientist Wil Reilly, who retweeted this graphic, told me in a Twitter exchange that “most major ‘MSM/PMC’ [mainstream media/professional-managerial class] claims about COVID were b/s from the start.” As it happens, the very next day I stumbled on a thread by Reilly from March 20, 2020, arguing that it was extremely unlikely the coronavirus would kill more Americans in 2020 than the flu already had by that point (22,000 to 24,000). “There are currently 14,366 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in-country, there have been 220 deaths, and spread may almost stop during summer,” Reilly wrote. The actual COVID-19 death toll in the United States for 2020 ended up being 385,000. So it seems that, at least on the numbers, the “MSM/PMC” were far closer to the truth.

The Team Red narrative also minimizes the death toll by claiming that it was overwhelmingly among the very old; in fact, a quarter of the dead (242,000) were under 65 and nearly half (458,000) were under 75. And then, of course, there’s the “dead with COVID, not from COVID” dodge—even though the Centers for Disease Control separates cases in which COVID is a contributing but not principal factor from those in which it is the underlying cause of death.

But no part of Team Red COVID discourse has been more insidious than anti-vaccine propaganda, often abetted by the “anti-anti-vax” crowd. Some of this discourse comes from people who are not, strictly speaking, Team Red but are part of the “anti-woke” side in the culture wars (a side with which I broadly sympathize). Brett Weinstein and Heather Heying, husband-and-wife biologists who attracted a lot of support a few years ago when they were run out of Evergreen College for opposing an “anti-racist” exercise in which white people were asked to stay away from campus for a day, have emerged as two leading voices of COVID vaccine skepticism—rejecting scientific evidence for quackery.

Former New York Times editor and anti-“cancel culture” dissenter Bari Weiss initially urged her newsletter readers last May to get vaccinated and start living a normal life (and advised the vaccine-hesitant to “consider the data” and get with the program); but later, she shifted toward platforming vaccine skeptics as a legitimate side in the debate and giving sympathetic coverage to vaccine resisters including the protesting Canadian truckers, with no balancing pro-vaccination message or criticism of anti-vax agitprop and conspiracy theories.

It’s hard to say whether this is contrarianism or audience capture. Either way—and I say this as someone who generally admires Bari Weiss—it’s, well, deplorable.

Of course one can oppose government vaccination mandates on the grounds of personal autonomy without being anti-vaccine. But surely the only way to take that position responsibly is to also stress that people should get vaccinated for their own and others’ sakes: breakthrough cases in the vaccinated are not only vastly less likely to result in serious illness and death but less likely to lead to transmission.

So yes, you can have sympathy for the Canadian truckers. But give some thought, too, to people like Robert LaMay, a Seattle police officer who quit his job last October to protest Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccination mandate for state employees (even though he himself had received a religious exemption). LaMay was hailed as a hero by Fox News and right-wing radio after he filmed himself in his patrol car on his last day on the job telling Gov. Inslee to “kiss my ass.” Less than four months later, he was dead of COVID at the age of 51, after four weeks in the hospital.

Whatever one may think of LaMay’s choice to forgo vaccination for (apparently) religious and philosophical reasons, what happened to him is a terrible tragedy. But it is also a fact that he received praise and attention for persisting in a literally self-destructive course of action. His Fox News fans, including Laura Ingraham, had nothing to say about his death. Seattle right-wing talk show host Jason Rantz blasted the “ghoulish vaccine zealots” who had made snarky remarks on Twitter, but did not express any regret about his role in lionizing LaMay.

When Weiss appeared on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher last January and declared that she was “done with COVID,” she asserted that COVID excessive restrictions would be remembered as a “catastrophic moral crime”—but had no such harsh words for anti-vax agitprop and its peddlers. Surely, what happened to Robert LaMay qualifies as a moral crime as well.

Today, the latest covidiot trope is that it’s no coincidence that COVID-19 became a non-story just as the war in Ukraine broke out. Obviously, our globalist showrunners had decided that it was time to wrap up the pandemic storyline and roll out the World War III one. At least I think that’s what Julie Kelly implies in her latest American Greatness column.

In reality, of course, COVID-19 may not be done with us. China has a new COVID surge, and infections are rising again in Europe thanks to a “stealth” Omicron subvariant. We don’t know yet if our new freedom from COVID will turn out to be just a break. And, while the new subvariant seems mild, we don’t know that another mutation can’t bring back a more severe version of the disease. This is not a cause to panic—scientists are working on a universal COVID vaccine, and treatments are constantly improving—but we may not be out of the woods yet. And a major COVID outbreak in Ukraine, already battered by war and a refugee crisis, could be a truly horrific tragedy.

Meanwhile, right-wing Twitter is getting upset about a screenshot from a Forbes blog post discussing whether it would be a good idea to administer psychoactive drugs to the population to make people more likely to comply with masking and social distancing guidelines for COVID-19. “You will take ‘morality pills’ and be happy. This is what the elites want for you,” tweeted anti-woke guru James Lindsay, to the tune of 1,700 retweets. Actually, the article, by physician and free-market advocate Paul Hsieh, argued against the morality pill idea (a fact the headline had been tweaked to reflect), and its only known exponent was an adjunct assistant professor in philosophy at Western Michigan University . . . back in August 2020.

It’s good to see that some people have their eye on what’s important.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.