Pandemic amnesty and its discontents
Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, calls for a “pandemic amnesty” in a recent piece for the Atlantic. The first year of the pandemic was a time of “tremendous uncertainty,” Oster writes, and “treating pandemic choices as a scorecard on which some people racked up more points than others is preventing us from moving forward” (emphasis mine).
Oster wants Americans to stop fighting and start forgiving. Yes, many precautions were misguided, and lacking adequate data, public officials made some bad calls. But the pandemic created many problems that still need to be solved, and bickering just makes those problems worse. “Let’s acknowledge that we made complicated choices in the face of deep uncertainty,” she urges, “and then try to work together to build back and move forward.”
With all due respect, Ms. Oster, but absolutely not.
Oster deserves credit for her efforts to reopen schools, and I’m glad she can forgive her own accusers, but her appeals to our better angels are at best misplaced, and at worst disingenuous.
Now, I have long called for an off-ramp for ordinary people. Oster is right that everyday Americans were at the mercy of public health officials and so-called experts who relied on limited data. Most people simply heeded the talking heads on T.V. who claimed to speak on behalf of “the science.” It was a moment of great uncertainty and fear, and people tend to act on their worst impulses in such times. Forgiving family, friends, and even strangers for behaving badly while under the influence of an overwhelming propaganda campaign is laudable and healthy. But it’s up to every individual to decide for themselves, at the very least to preserve their sanity and revive crucial relationships. It’s also important that ordinary people have the chance to reassess the past two years and recognize who exploited them when fear and ignorance prevailed; they need to be able to identify the problem.
But Oster’s piece misdiagnoses the problem—and I suspect it’s deliberate. Like other cultural commentators she puts the onus on the individual, asking ordinary people to remember their own foibles and show the same grace to public officials and institutions as they would to a friend. By limiting the discussion to personal reconciliation, she implies that responsibility lies with the ordinary person. We everyday Americans just need to make our peace and defer to the same class of experts, propagandists, and profiteers who navigated the pandemic. Oster calls this “working together.”
But every ordinary person still has scars—everyone has a story. Grandstanding on who was right about COVID’s origins, the benefits of masking, or the efficacy of the vaccines is not what matters most to the public; these I-told-you-so concerns reek of elite insecurity. Ordinary people are watching their children perform poorly in school and flounder socially. They are looking at their bank accounts and wondering why after trillions of dollars in “relief,” they far are worse off than before. Some are deeply in debt and struggling to revive a failing business or a derailed career, while others are trying to regain their footing after being fired for refusing the jab. Families across the country are suffering in silence as they grapple with vaccine injuries or sudden heart conditions, their calls for help censored and erased from public view. Everyone has a story. Americans of every stripe know someone who withered away under the watchful eye of petty functionaries. How many of us never got to say our goodbyes? Our most sacred relationships and rituals were fractured during the pandemic. The worst part: these trespasses against us were often motivated by fear, arrogance, greed, or contempt—and we were powerless to stop them.
I lost my own grandfather to the virus more than a year ago, the last year of his life made miserable thanks to senseless edicts and hysterical propaganda. At this point, I can only be grateful that he was allowed to see his children for final 24 hours of his life—that he didn’t have to die alone.
But this sort of thing doesn’t make an appearance in the Atlantic piece. Clearly, Oster believes what really matters to the public is being right. But again, this is a primary concern to those with serious social and cultural capital, people whose status and livelihoods hinge on credibility and prestige—the kind of people who called the shots during the pandemic.
In this way, Oster defends the experts, propagandists, and profiteers who not only got it wrong, but knowingly deceived the public and pursued naked self-interest when we were at our most vulnerable. Do we really need to revisit the scale of this catastrophe? In her rush to reconciliation, has Oster paused to think what it portends if COVID-19 escaped from a US-funded lab in Wuhan? Or that the Department of Homeland Security and social media companies colluded to censor protected speech about the pandemic’s origins and vaccine efficacy? What does she make of the fact that Anthony Fauci used his extraordinary influence to ostracize and silence other scientists involved in the Great Barrington Declaration? Or that amid the worst year in military recruiting since Vietnam, the Biden Administration still purged unvaccinated servicemembers—some on the verge of retirement. And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how the pandemic response led to the greatest transfer of wealth in American history.
This is a crisis of legitimacy, and the only people who don’t seem to know it are those closest to the problem.
To borrow from Oster, they are still in the dark.
Much of the fury that ordinary Americans feel now is that even after all they’ve suffered—after all they’ve sacrificed—they remain nonentities: a nameless bovine mass to be clucked at and prodded along; destination: moving forward. But the public has lost confidence in the annointed in recent years, and a panic is now setting in. If our betters got it this wrong, and then knowingly defended lies, corruption, and cruelty to the hilt, what’s next? This time we barely made it to the corral, will the next drive lead to the slaughterhouse?
Oster worries that if we refuse to forgive and forget, we won’t be able to address the historic decline in student test scores. She even fears that routine vaccination for schoolchildren will become a crisis. For this, Oster urges pediatricians and public-health officials to “work together” and politicians to consider more mandates. Yes, mandates.
Without a doubt, Oster’s appeal will resonate with a thin segment of the US population—namely those whose status and livelihood hinge on credibility and prestige—the kind of people who called the shots and during the pandemic. They want things to go back to normal, when their decisions went unquestioned and the bovine mass simply moved along; destination: moving forward.
I’m not looking for an apology from ordinary people who followed the propaganda. I don’t need your outsourced excuse for the lockdowns or masked toddlers, and I don’t want to hear your justification for treating your friends and neighbors like dirt.
Take that up with the Lord.
Instead, I never want these corrupt and monstrous people—the ones who called the shots—to ever have power over me and my family again. This time, I know I’m not alone.
Ms. Oster’s request only further convinces me that unless there are severe consequences for our so-called elite, it’s only a matter of time before they end up promoting an even deadlier abuse of power. It presents a level of risk that I’m just not willing to take.
The party’s over.