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The COVID Pretext

Politicians are using the pandemic to push through policies that have nothing to do with public health

A lot of people invite their in-laws to stay with them when they have a new baby. That’s what my husband and I planned to do this fall. We never expected my mother-in-law would be prevented from getting on a plane by the Australian government.

Since late March, Australia has banned its citizens from leaving the country without a special government permit, in order to limit the country’s exposure to the coronavirus. More than three-quarters of requests for exit permits are denied, including ours. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he does not anticipate the ban will be lifted before the end of the year.

This ban is in addition to the mandatory quarantine for in-bound travelers, where guards escort you from the airport to a designated hotel where you are put under watch for 14 days with a TV and a pamphlet for Uber Eats.

At least the quarantine makes superficial sense, however much of an overreaction it is in a country with the population of Texas and a coronavirus death toll lower than the District of Columbia’s. But the ban on outbound travel makes no sense. If they’re willing to be quarantined on their return, at their own expense, why prevent people from leaving?

Maybe the reason is that tourism, a massive chunk of Australia’s economy, has suddenly vaporized, and the prime minister is worried about people taking overseas holidays and wants those tourism dollars to stay at home.

That’s the stage of the pandemic we have reached: questioning everyone’s ulterior motives.

There is good reason to do so. It’s hard not to notice how many people are clearly using the pandemic as a pretext to do what they have long wanted to do anyway, or to get in a blow at their political opponents while they’re vulnerable, or to score some short-term personal advantage under a thin medical excuse.

The Mexican state of Oaxaca just banned the sale of soda and junk food to children. The bill’s sponsor introduced the same ban last year, unsuccessfully, but this time she was able to draw a tenuous link between calories, obesity, and coronavirus risk. Spain effectively banned outdoor smoking at the behest of public health experts, even though smokers have been shown to be at lower risk from COVID than non-smokers.

South Africa went further than any other country, enacting a total ban on alcohol and tobacco sales in March. Prohibition was lifted only last week, when it became clear that the main beneficiaries were the country’s smuggling gangs.

Here in the United States, a group of congressmen are pressing the FDA for a “temporary” ban on e-cigarettes, suspending all vaping sales “for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.” They cite a single study showing increased COVID risk for young users. But that study was an online survey based on self-reporting, with fewer than 5,000 self-selected respondents, and asked not about current e-cigarette use but if users had ever vaped. Its findings contradict literally hundreds of other studies, in journals as prestigious as the Lancet, showing that nicotine products do not increase coronavirus risk. The congressman who organized the push is simply a longtime opponent of e-cigarettes taking advantage of the pandemic to push his agenda.

No issue has been more transparently politicized than school reopenings. According to the New York Times, a mid-June survey of the American Federation of Teachers found that three-quarters of members were willing to return to the classroom, with precautions. Then, on July 6, President Trump tweeted: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany urged districts to “follow the science and open our schools.” Suddenly the AFT got a lot more skeptical. In Chicago, the percentage of teachers who said they would feel “extremely uncomfortable” returning in person jumped 30 points in the weeks after the president’s tweet. 

This surge in concern was clearly a matter of political polarization, not science. A Brookings study of school districts across the nation found no relationship between reopening policies and coronavirus cases per capita. Instead, the districts most likely to choose in-person learning were those in counties that voted for Trump in 2016. Remote learning was most popular not in the hardest hit counties, but in Democratic ones.

Right now the strictest lockdown in the free world is in the Australian state of Victoria. Melbourne residents are not allowed to leave home between 8pm and 5am, unless they are essential workers, and during the day can exercise for only one hour within 5km of their address. Households can send one member on one shopping visit per day. Drones have been deployed, not just to patrol the closed border but also in downtown Melbourne to enforce curfew compliance and mask-wearing. Police have knocked on tens of thousands of doors to check if residents are home, and those who aren’t face thousands of dollars in fines.

Among the hundreds of violators Victoria police have punished under the new rules:

  • Two parents who took their children to a lake 14km from their house, outside the allowed 5km radius.
  • Four young people, three males and a female, whose car was stopped at a road checkpoint and were found to reside at different addresses.
  • Two men in their forties who started a Facebook group to organize a protest march against the lockdown. They were arrested and charged with incitement, their computers and phones seized. Police warned the public that anyone who showed up to the protest would be fined $1,652.

What could possibly explain this overreach in a state with fewer than 500 coronavirus deaths, the vast majority in nursing homes? (For comparison, Massachusetts with a comparable population has had 8,900 deaths.) It could be that the Victorian government wants to try out Chinese-style surveillance methods while it has the opportunity, in case it ever wants to use them in the future. Maybe Premier Dan Andrews saw what lockdowns did for Andrew Cuomo’s approval ratings and wanted a similar boost for himself. That would explain why he has personally conducted the state’s press briefings for fifty days straight without a break. Whatever the reason, it’s not scientific. 

American politicians seeking a middle ground between skeptics and lockdowners often settle on the worst possible compromise: hygiene theatre. Polishing doorknobs and wiping down countertops doesn’t do much to fight a virus that spreads through air droplets, not surfaces. If elementary schools are safe enough to open — because young children are low-risk spreaders — then they’re safe enough not to require kindergarteners to wear masks, which five-year-olds will just fiddle with anyway, negating any health benefit. Photos of socially distanced lunch rooms are intended to reassure teachers and parents, not provide any benefit to students.

The original purpose of the lockdowns was to “flatten the curve” and prevent hospitals from being overrun. We did that. What is their purpose now? When can lockdowns be lifted? It is difficult not to politicize that question, under the circumstances. But the truth is that lockdowns will only reduce the long-term spread of the virus if they are used to buy time until a vaccine is found, and right now there is no guarantee one ever will be. Politicians including the governors of Ohio, Illinois, and New Jersey and the mayors of Los Angeles and New York have all suggested that only a vaccine will allow a return to normal life, with gatherings of over 50 people and indoor dining at restaurants. It is not a fringe position to say that these things must remained banned until a vaccine is found. Just a scientifically unsupportable one.



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