Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

When a Pandemic Becomes a Phobia

A civil society constantly roiled by Covid-19 fears and kept in lockdowns will not survive.
COVID depression

We begin today with a narc by the name of Aaron Fritschner. Fritschner, who works for a Democratic congressman, was recently in the Rayburn House Office Building when he stumbled upon something flabbergasting: Republican staffers sans masks blowing off steam on a Thursday evening by playing beer pong (not even with beer, just water) in the hallway. Stunned by the absolutely unprecedented presence of frat behavior on Capitol Hill, Fritschner ratted them out on Twitter. “I even smelled a cigar,” he intoned, before decrying such “decadent apathy” (water in plastic cups) “at a time when people are getting sick and dying.”

Social media promptly went to town on Fritschner, but his little pink slip was a callback to the days when Covid snitching was far more common. Back then, tattletales were alerting the authorities to everything from illicit golfing to exuberant barbecuing to spitting on the sidewalk. As Rod Liddle aptly put it, “There is a certain tranche of the population which yearns for its fellow citizens to be chastised, punished and, if possible, banged up.”

Moderns, right? We like to think we’re so above all this. We read about authoritarian states where friends turned in neighbors, shake our heads, and think, we would never do that. Wouldn’t we though? If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that while we might exceed our ancestors in medical knowhow, we haven’t evolved much when it comes to all the less enviable features of human nature. Snitching, looting, hoarding, rioting, bullying, scapegoating, quack cures, panics, conspiracy theories, crazy cultish beliefs—all of them flourished in the year of our edgelord 2020. So while the coronavirus might have been easy compared to, say, the Black Death, let’s not pretend it wasn’t a species-wide psychological blow.

Now, that dark carnival of pathologies threatens to return. America is back on high alert over the coronavirus. The CDC last week issued new guidelines advising even the fully vaccinated to wear masks inside. Washington, D.C., promptly saluted and reinstated an indoor mask mandate, while Los Angeles County already had, and the San Francisco region did shortly thereafter. A few weeks earlier, the CDC recommended that all students and teachers wear masks during the upcoming school year, again regardless of vaccination status. Many universities and school districts have said they’ll comply. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, warns that “in all probability” Americans will soon be facing tougher Covid-19 restrictions.

It will not surprise you to learn that the mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, was caught officiating a maskless wedding on the very first day her mandate was in place. (Rules for thee, not for me is another human shortcoming on full parade.) It may surprise you to learn, but probably won’t, that last week D.C. averaged only 61 new Covid cases and three people died. Yet for this, an entire city must suffer. The pandemic is now largely limited to the unvaccinated—the CDC says 99.999 percent of those with two shots have neither been hospitalized nor died. This suggests there’s a ceiling for the current Delta variant spike. And all the more so when you consider that, while about half of the American population is fully vaccinated, 80 percent of senior citizens are, and the virus from the start has mostly afflicted the elderly.

We thus have a choice. Either we force everyone to get vaccinated or we allow for some continuing Covid-19 activity among those who choose not to. Many are loudly calling for the former. Yet such compulsion would be a moral disaster, to say nothing of a violation of liberty. It would pour gasoline on our already raging culture war, as entire communities resisted and lines of division thickened. No, the only way forward is to accept that this is how it is for now, to let this pass and not succumb to panic.

Because it’s that panic that at this point poses the greatest threat. TAC‘s Helen Andrews recently compared the latest Covid freakout to a case of hypochondria, a condition that’s both startlingly rational—it’s not crazy to worry you might get sick—and quite serious. Those of us less eloquent than Helen might say simply that it’s based in fear. Fear can likewise be rational, but when it becomes inordinately obsessed with a single bogey at the expense of everything else, it no longer is; it’s a phobia. So too with our present meltdown. Right now, even though cases have been ticking upward for weeks, Covid deaths are still flat. Yet over this, some are still willing to lock down society and risk more unemployment and unrest and suicides, rather than acknowledge just how small the spider on the wall really is.

Too much fear, and especially fear of each other, is ultimately lethal to a civic order. This is why a key feature—perhaps the key feature—of totalitarian societies is that they make their subjects afraid not just of the state but of their neighbors. If you’re constantly on pins and needles, if you’re forever peering over the fence through the bay window next door, you’re never going to develop the kinds of bonds with others that could undermine the regime’s control. Revolutions are fought by brotherhoods; it’s the atomized who are pliable. This is also why so much dystopian fiction, from 1984 to We, depicts the love affair as the ultimate act of dissidence. Real intimacy is a powerful force, and so the totalitarian seeks to devalue it or abolish it altogether.

Covid-era America is by no means a totalitarian state. Yet can’t the climate sometimes feel that way? What else to think when you walk past someone on the sidewalk and unconsciously give them a wide berth as though they’re marked? Or when you watch a bully yell at a jogger because he’s not flaunting his loyalty by wearing a mask? Under normal circumstances, an elderly woman who has a coughing fit is an object of sympathy and care; under our Covid phobia, she becomes suspicious, a possible agent of illness and death. Our family, our friends, those we’re supposed to be sharing life with, all get refashioned as potential health risks, just as under the totalitarian they’re turned into possible traitors and subversives.

Yes, by all means, let’s have checks and balances, bills of rights. But if you’re looking to forestall tyranny, the single greatest safeguard is a robust civil society. And so long as we insist on treating every Covid-19 blip as a four-alarm emergency, we cannot and will not have that.

When I first got into politics, it was the post-9/11 right that was spreading this kind of antisocial fear. Back then, the Bush administration was haranguing the country to “say something if you see something” (i.e. turn in your cat because you thought it just meowed in Farsi), while the Department of Homeland Security had its glorious color-coded terrorism alert scale informing us just how afraid we were supposed to be (curiously it never went below yellow). Today, it’s the left that’s trafficking in that fear. And with fresh rumblings about new variants, third shots, more mitigation, it should be clear that this isn’t going to stop unless we consciously resist that temptation to panic.

Otherwise our social order will continue to languish; the snitch, the phobic, the Amazon algorithm, and the mirthless bureaucrat will thrive. This cannot go on and there is nothing in science or law that says it has to.