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COVID’s Legacy: Less Science, More Authoritarianism

The virus is real but the measures we're taking make no sense—unless you're a government bully trying to consolidate power.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo holds daily media announcement and briefing at 633 3rd Avenue, Manhattan.(Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Science is asking questions and accepting the answers. Superstition is when belief drives people to do silly things without evidence. Which method works better for authoritarians and bullies? The latter, of course, which is what’s driving America’s COVID response.

Some 11 months into the coronavirus, so little makes sense. Masks have become a political talisman, health policy a way to settle political scores. False dichotomies such as “lives or money” cloud people’s abilities to make thoughtful decisions. Instead of working together, we fear one another as carriers. The urge to panic has not been replaced by an equivalent urge to vaccinate. We are locked down with economic and social consequences we still don’t understand.

Precautions vary widely. In New York, the more expensive the store, the deeper into COVIDiocy they are. High-end retailers have someone at the door scolding the unmasked, demanding hand sanitizing, gleefully enforcing social distancing. Economic bottom feeders, such as NYC’s sinkholes of hope, the bodegas, have cashiers, their masks tucked under their chins, screaming in bad Spanish at the kids shoplifting Ding Dongs.

The highest expression of COVIDiocy in NYC are the museums, all of which were subsumed by the Museum of White Guilt during the Trump years, with special exhibits of less known artists of color, or trans-something featurettes. Enforced by guards whose behavior is an exhibit on fascism all its own, they cling to the 25 percent of capacity rule even though their rooms are gaping large with 20 foot ceilings.

The “capacity” of a public space is based on fire regulations, a computation of how many people can safely get out of a space in a fire. It seems to have little to do with air volume, or how air is handled inside the space, things that might be directly relevant to COVID. Wouldn’t how far people stand apart depend on, literally, which way the wind is blowing? I have been unable to find anything explaining why 25 percent capacity was chosen; why not 18 or 41.5 percent?

But while museums obsess about only allowing limited guests, there are no such rules on the subway some may take to get there. The trains run with whatever number of people decide to board, spaced out as they wish. There are staff to mop the floors in defense of a largely airborne disease but none to disperse passengers among the cars.

You’d think people, left to their own devices, would do be better at being human. In my apartment house of some 300 units, there are some who simply have not left the building for the last 11 months. There are a few, meerkat-like, who venture out with caution. One uses paper towels to open the dryer door in the common laundry room. Many have given up speaking to anyone, seeing each of us passing in the halls as a potential Angel of Death. As Joe Biden’s senior adviser on COVID said, even our children are “like mosquitoes carrying a tropical disease.” It’s a miserable way to live.

Most people around here do wear their masks, but even there it makes no sense. You’ll see “masks” made by stretching a T-shirt over one’s nose, along with fresh surgical masks and stained paper ones. Some masks fit well; most have gaps on the sides where impure air is exhaled; some have valves to spew out unfiltered breaths. One neighborhood family has matching full-face respirators for mom, dad, and two small kids, suitable for a Chernobyl picnic, like characters out of some 1950s “Our Friend the Atom!” educational film.

Placing all efforts in making people wear something symbolic, like an old soiled mask, and little to no effort in enforcing the efficiency of those masks (such as handing out clean ones everywhere), is the appearance of action without action, 9/11 security theater. Politics.

It equally makes no sense why vaccinating Americans is not a 24/7 urgent national task. New York issues dire warnings to the elderly (58 percent of all COVID deaths are people age 75 and older) but provides no vaccines for them. Why, unlike in March, isn’t the National Guard out, this time with needles? Meanwhile the Biden White House has no idea how many doses of vaccine are on hand. New York City does not know how many teachers it may have vaccinated. Why can’t anyone say when I/my grandma/my kids will get vaccinated?

No one seems to know. The same voices that screamed about not having enough ventilators and PPE and ICU space are now quiet. Who is worthy of living is a public decision of massive importance being made in absolute secrecy. Who gets the vaccine in NYC is in the hands of the Taskforce on Racial Equity and Inclusion, chaired by the mayor’s wife, not a medical doctor. The goal is to ensure “hard hit” areas get the shots first. But somehow her list skipped the hardest hit, Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jews, who refused to follow the mayor’s dictates in early COVID days. It does include exclusive vaccination sites in public housing and black churches and allows them to prioritize their own appointments to exclude non-neighborhood folks. Nothing says compassion in a crisis like a little political score settling.

Why is it so hard to know what is going on in other places, like Sweden, which took a lite approach to lockdowns? Most mainstream media concluded that Sweden failed and needed to lockdown just like us as contrition. But when looking at worldwide COVID deaths per 100,000, Sweden does not make the top 10 worst. Within Europe, the Swedish deaths per 100,000 are below other nations that had resorted to more draconian societal measures.

So did Sweden fail? There are still quite a few Swedes alive and their society suffered minimal impact. Would a lockdown have helped? We could benefit from asking the same sorts of questions about Florida and New York. Despite its tougher-than-the-rest lockdowns, the deaths per 100k rate in New York is double that of laissez-faire Florida, one of only two states with more than 20 percent of the population over age 65. North Dakota’s rate is almost identical to Connecticut’s, though we universally blame one on rednecks too dumb for science and don’t talk about the other. Is anyone—Bueller?—even trying to weigh deaths per 100k against the secondary damage of lockdowns, suicides, increased drug use, economic problems, etc.? Or is it that we simply “believe” in something based on Red/Blue and defend it to the last mask?

Depend on the science, people say, before ignoring it. A recent study via Stanford actually did look at non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) for controlling the spread of COVID, such as mandatory stay-at-home orders, across 10 countries including Sweden. The study concluded (by science!) that lockdowns and the like had “no clear, significant beneficial effect on case growth in any country.” In fact, the study suggested in some places that lockdowns made the COVID spread worse, as people concentrated in greater numbers among the few businesses that were allowed to open.

Of course, someone will Google up a conflicting study, but the lack of discussion around these issues is appalling. The success of the MSM in politicizing debate, as they did with the Iraq war when basic questions were seen as disloyal, has meant that we’ve proceeded into the darkness without science’s light.

Why do we care so much about bullying people in stores and not about doing the things that without question save lives? COVID is real, but under-reaction to the vaccine seems just as dangerous as the virus itself. It’s almost as if the politicians don’t really want COVID to end. Making people afraid is how governments grow their power; frightened people usually demand that someone exert more control over them. Rules that make little sense grossly enforced by bullies are great training for more authoritarianism. That may well be COVID’s legacy.

Or maybe this: in New York, citing COVID, Governor Andrew Cuomo by decree canceled six special elections to favor his political allies, canceled the presidential primary to avoid embarrassing Joe Biden with too many Bernie protest votes, and expanded his budgetary powers. He now determines when people can work, go to school, and how they can spend their free time. He holds life-and-death vaccine decisions in his own hands. His power to detain sick people without trial is a state legislature vote away.

I am so glad we beat back fascism. Imagine what that would be like.

Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.

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