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Covid Stockholm Syndrome

The hostages have grown attached to their hostage takers.

In the movie Die Hard, a nebbishy expert is trying to explain what he calls “Helsinki Syndrome,” the idea that hostages become psychologically attached to hostage takers, to a TV audience. The perfectly coiffed news anchor turns to the camera and interjects, “As in Helsinki, Sweden.”

Thirty years later, the satire is still pitch perfect: moronic but self-assured media personality intones obviously false information to a mass audience. As the Covid-19 era draws to a close, today’s audience has been conditioned to accept as fact alarmist headlines, many of which are purely speculative or simply detached from reality. Call it Covid Stockholm Syndrome. The hostages have grown attached to their hostage takers.

The media tropes that enable Covid Stockholm Syndrome have become tiresomely familiar: Globalization made the spread of worldwide pandemics inevitable. Even vaccines don’t provide 100 percent protection. New variants will start the whole cycle over again. The mantra that “We are never going back to normal” is repeated with the same deluded self-certainty as the Die Hard TV anchor’s pronouncements on European geography.

The propagators of alarmism are not interested in science but “science,” a free-floating morass of cultural signaling, political posturing, and amateurish crowd psychology. Hard science has actually fared quite well during the Covid era. The mRNA vaccines are marvels of modern medicine, developed on an accelerated schedule that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. The best sources of information on Covid have often been virologists and epidemiologists on Twitter, who are admirably clear and forthright compared to their media interpreters.  

The same could not be said of “science” and its allies in the media and the public health bureaucracy, to say nothing of the legions of scolds empowered by the pandemic.

The FDA’s abrupt pause on one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccinations is a case in point. Was it really a good idea to publicly announce a halt after six—six—health complications that may or may not have been connected to the vaccine? Did anyone stop to consider the fact that discrediting the easiest-to-administer vaccine, the dose most likely to reach the hesitant, the alienated, and the overseas populations without the infrastructure for Pfizer or Moderna doses, might not be a good idea? Coincidentally or not, vaccination rates dropped noticeably after the Johnson & Johnson pause. 

The school reopening debate is the clearest example yet of a risk calculus that only considers one side of the equation. It was clear early on that students were resistant to both infection and transmission. It should also have been clear from the outset that replacing in-person classes with video lectures would be disastrous for student achievement, socialization, and mental health. Rhode Island kept its schools open during the pandemic. So, for the most part, did Germany. Students in California and large urban school districts across the country were not so lucky. 

The histrionics surrounding school closures were worthy of an amateur theater production. Last November, the New York Times highlighted a 26-year-old teacher who said that the prospect of reopening schools made her feel like a contestant in The Hunger Games. Just over 800 women ages 18 to 29 have died from Covid-19 in the entire country; let’s hope this woman does not teach math. With appropriate precautions (masks, spacing, ventilation, reasonable exemptions for at-risk teachers), younger teachers could have returned to the classroom months ago. 

Despite the wide availability of vaccines, many schools still haven’t reopened. In San Francisco, kids come to school for “Zoom in a room” because even fully vaccinated teachers won’t come back to classrooms. As of May 5, over half of California public school students were still stuck with distance learning. New York State won’t provide precise information about how many students are actually back in class because so many schools are still closed. 

Instead of grappling with the costs of prolonged school closures, lockdown apologists have turned to straightforward denialism. The term “learning loss” should be replaced by “learning change,” according to a San Francisco Board of Education commissioner, with a hearty amen from Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss. The New York Times’ Dana Goldstein helpfully suggested that we should avoid testing kids to see how far they’ve fallen behind the past year, lest we uncover the full extent of the distance learning debacle.   

Other lockdown-related policy disagreements follow a similar pattern. The tone is set by public health experts, whose doom-and-gloom prognostications are repeatedly overtaken by events. In mid-March, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned of an “Italy-style” wave of hospitalizations if restrictions were eased too quickly. The director of the CDC predicted “impending doom” on March 29. Needless to say, these pronouncements were not vindicated.

The study of public health instills an exaggerated sense of caution among its acolytes that transcends geography. Australia won’t commit to opening its borders after a full vaccination campaign. A public health official in Hong Kong says that variants are still “a knife over our heads” after herd immunity is reached. If it were up to public health officials, we wouldn’t emerge from quarantine until sometime in the early 2030s. 

Public health sometimes gives ground to public pressure—witness the CDC’s lurching liberalization of masking guidance—but alarmist messaging continues to shape the media narrative. “Even after being fully vaccinated, many still wrestle with a fear of catching Covid,” read an NBC headline in late April. In a striking display of innumeracy, a CNN travel author suggested that a 90 percent effective vaccine meant that 100,000 out of every million airline passengers would contract the virus.

This list of media hysterics is not cherry-picking. A Dartmouth study of Covid coverage found that American media were considerably more alarmist than their counterparts abroad: 87 percent of stories from major American outlets were negative during the pandemic, compared to just 50 percent from non-U.S. sources. Is it any wonder that most European countries were able to keep their schools open? 

A corollary to Covid hysteria is the insistence that we are entering a new era of global pandemics, with this virus merely the first of many. These predictions are rarely made by virologists because such alarmism isn’t scientifically grounded. The two most likely origins of the pandemic, a lab leak or a Chinese live animal “wet market,” both point to discrete and correctable problems. The prevalence of wet markets, a cultural practice specific to Southeastern China, is eminently fixable. The best available evidence suggests that the pandemic could have been avoided through better trained lab techs or less adventurous Chinese culinary habits.  

Inertia, rather than ideology, is often the strongest force in American politics. Even as the threat of terrorism has receded, the architecture of the post-9/11 security state remains in place. We should not make the same mistakes with public health. Pandemic-era practices that were meant as temporary protective measures should be discarded as soon as possible. 

Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, managing a pandemic is too important to be left to public health experts and their auxiliaries in journalism and social media. From cratering student achievement to frayed community bonds, lockdowns and quarantines have imposed real costs. Mercifully, the vaccines offer us a way out. We should have the wit to embrace our deliverance.  

Will Collins is a teacher in Budapest, Hungary.