But social life is not a luxury that we can just suspend for a higher cause — it is the way we meet our most basic physical, spiritual and emotional needs. People will do what it takes to meet these needs, no matter what public officials decree. People will keep needing to be cared for, fed, nurtured, consoled and attended to by other human beings – and people will not tolerate social isolation forever, no matter how many police you put on the streets.
It is reasonable to feel some fear in the face of a virus that poses an elevated risk of death to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. But we also have much to fear from governments that believe a public-health crisis gives them the right to play God with our lives.
The situation for air travelers is quite different. Under a rule that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently extended through September 13, all passengers, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated, must wear face masks “at all times” in airports and on airplanes. Violators are subject to a $250 fine the first time around and a $1,500 fine for repeat offenses. As you might expect from the agency that gave us “security theater,” the face mask rule is a form of “hygiene theater,” gratuitously incommoding passengers to create the illusion of added safety.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “recently announced that fully vaccinated travelers…can travel safely within the U.S.,” the TSA says, “the CDC guidelines still require individuals to wear a face mask, socially distance, and wash their hands or use hand sanitizer.” The TSA’s attempt to pass the buck is more than a little misleading.
The CDC’s latest guidelines actually say that fully vaccinated people “can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” So yes, as long as the TSA requires all airline passengers to wear masks, that edict qualifies as an exception to the general rule. But that hardly means the TSA’s requirement is based on scientific guidance from the CDC, as the TSA implies.
Why is it that people’s compassionate instincts have been so turbocharged during the pandemic? Why is it that we have come to care so much about the fact that people are dying of Covid, when we generally care so little about people dying of cancer, traffic accidents, or diabetes – or, for that matter, starvation and war in the developing world?
The pat answer is that it is because we have been subject to such a relentless stream of imagery and statistics about Covid, and that this has put the victims of the disease at the forefront of our minds in a way that simply is not the case for other causes of death and suffering in the world. This is undoubtedly so, but there is something else at work in this – something which, borrowing from Milan Kundera, I will describe as a form of kitsch.
Texas update: Today (June 2nd) is the three-month anniversary of the lifting in that state of statewide Covid restrictions – a policy move that Biden at the time alleged to spring from “Neanderthal thinking.” Covid cases have since fallen steadily. As of yesterday, the seven-day average of Covid cases in Texas were only 13 percent of what it was on March 2nd (despite testing being up by 36 percent over the past two weeks; the seven-day average case count as of yesterday was only 47 percent of its level two weeks earlier).