Questioning the War on COVID-19
A war effort based on bad information has endangered civil liberties, promoted public disorder, and deepened our social divides.
Last year, America went to war against an invisible enemy. Calling himself a “wartime president,” Donald Trump deemed the outbreak of COVID-19 “worse than Pearl Harbor … worse than the World Trade Center.” Democrats echoed his martial rhetoric. Joe Biden proposed a revival of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War Production Board. Andrew Cuomo urged Americans to support our troops, though in this battle, he said, “the troops are healthcare professionals.”
Wartime spirit spread. Every night at seven, the streets of Manhattan echoed with cheers for “frontline” healthcare workers. Vegetable seeds were backordered for “victory gardens.” A writer in the Atlantic hailed “one of the most beautiful moments in our country’s long history—a moment of shared, galvanizing national spirit that has existed in perhaps only in a handful of epochal years before, like 1776, 1861, 1933, and 1941, and, in modern times, after 9/11.”
Lockdowns, social distancing, and masks were promoted not just for their health effects but as expressions of officially approved public spiritedness. Cuomo asked: “You want to honor the healthcare workers, and the people who literally gave their lives? … Wear a mask.” The journalist Matthew Zeitlin wrote: “To contribute to a great national cause in World War II you had to, like, die face down in the muck on some tiny pacific island. Now you can literally stay at home, watch the Sopranos or that Netflix dating show and be a hero.”
Dissent was not tolerated. Those who challenged lockdowns and masking requirements were depicted as white nationalists, neo-Nazis, or simply unhinged. As with the flag pin after 9/11, failure to wear a mask could be taken as a sign of disloyalty.
Given the recent history of American warmaking, claims that we are at war with the virus should be sobering.
In the War on Terror—another invisible enemy—we set out to spread freedom and democracy. Instead we restricted civil liberties in America and enabled the rise of ISIS in Iraq. Now we are preparing to hand Afghanistan back to the Taliban. These were bold ventures in nation building. But instead of “building back better,” we generated new forms of disorder. Grand schemes were overwhelmed by unintended consequences. Americans felt a spirit of national solidarity, but the seemingly endless wars on which we embarked only deepened our social divides. Their costs have been borne by the relatively small group of Americans who have direct ties to the professional military. Meanwhile, the bipartisan leadership class that had hoped to remake Iraq and Afghanistan avoided accountability.
Our latest war, another project of our bipartisan leadership class, is likewise leading to a loss of freedom, an increase in disorder, and a deepening of social divides.
Loss of Freedom
Last year, Americans were barred from public worship. They were forbidden to visit the dying or bury the dead. Several states attempted to ban anti-lockdown protests. Facebook removed posts promoting the events. Yet public leaders and corporate powers cheered on the “mostly peaceful” protests that followed the death of George Floyd. Officially, the Bill of Rights was still in effect. But in fact, a new system of rights had emerged. Some forms of religious and political expression were deemed inimical to public health, others essential to it.
The most severe restrictions are now being reversed. But some measures may be retained as part of a “new normal.” Anthony Fauci has suggested that masks could be worn in future flu seasons, a proposal that some would like to make mandatory. New viral strains threaten to involve us in the epidemiological equivalent of endless war. Even if all pandemic restrictions are duly reversed, the past year has shown that public health can be invoked to ban certain forms of speech and assembly, while encouraging others. It is a precedent for tyranny.
Last summer, people with nowhere else to go, nothing else to do, and relatively little to lose flooded the streets to protest the police. It still is not sufficiently appreciated how much the lockdowns did to fuel the Black Lives Matter movement. When you strip people of their employment and normal forms of recreation, they will find ways to express their discontent. Maneesh Arora, an assistant professor of political science at Wellesley College, observes that “the coronavirus pandemic helped the Floyd protests become the biggest in U.S. history.”
City streets were emptied of normal traffic and flooded with protestors. In the wake of these events, according to one analysis, murder spiked 37 percent nationally. If my section of the East Village is any indication, other forms of disorder have also risen. Two Sundays ago, as I left noon Mass holding the hand of my toddler, I came upon a man smoking heroin—my first such experience during 10 years in the neighborhood.
In 2020, eight million Americans fell into poverty. Two hundred thousand more small businesses closed than is normal in a given year. Meanwhile, Amazon and Walmart earned record profits. Jeff Bezos saw his wealth increase by $75 billion. As Alex Gutentag observed in an important piece for the Bellows, the fight against the virus became the occasion for a class war that has empowered the rich, squeezed the middle, and left more Americans dependent on public support.
We have been told to “trust the science” and “defer to the experts” despite the fact that the expert recommendations have frequently been misinformed or conflicting. Masks were deemed ineffective one day and necessary the next. Anthony Fauci, the face of the coronavirus response, admitted to lying to the American people to achieve his desired ends. Lockdowns were imposed on the basis of flawed models, just as the invasion of Iraq was justified with bad intelligence. As inconsistent and confused as the experts may seem, their advice tends to one coherent end: removing vital public questions from the realm of democratic deliberation and placing them in the hands of a credentialed elite.
Those who have claimed that we are at “war” with the virus may come to regret the analogy. But it is in some ways fitting. False information was peddled by “civil servants” invoking unchallengeable expertise. They presented the fight against the virus as a relatively quick and painless thing—“two weeks to flatten the curve.” Even if it does not become another endless war, it will leave our country less united, less safe, and less free.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things magazine, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.