How much of the economic and social damage during 2020-2021 was caused by voluntary responses to Covid-19, and how much of this damage was caused by government-imposed lockdowns and other restrictions? It’s a good question; an answer to it should be sought. (Here’s a report on one recent example to find an answer.) But it’s also a question not easily answered – or, at least, not easily answered if what is desired is information on how much damage was done to society by government. The chief reason for this difficulty is that government was and remains a major source of information about Covid. If that information is poor – as, for example, it most certainly is when based on models from the likes of Neil Ferguson – then voluntary responses to such poor information surely are in some significant degree the fault of government. Here’s more from David Henderson. Two slices:
If government simply settled for providing information, would that be better than a more radical alternative: not regulating and not providing information? That would depend on two factors: (1) whether government agencies provided information that people didn’t already have, and (2) whether the information those agencies provided was clear and accurate.
In one recent and important episode, though, the government record does not look good: the case of COVID-19.
Consider two questions on which accurate information would have been helpful.
First, how at risk of the disease were students in K–12 schools and how at risk were their teachers? On October 9, 2020, the Atlantic published an article by Brown University economist Emily Oster in which she reported some striking numbers. She wrote, “[O]ur data on almost 200,000 kids in 47 states from the last two weeks of September revealed an infection rate of 0.13 percent among students and 0.24 percent among staff.”
I emphasize the article’s date because it was early enough in the school year that officials at public schools, most of which were not open for a normal five-day in-person school week, could have adjusted to this information and returned to normal. To do so, though, many officials thought they needed to follow information promulgated by the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Did the CDC report Oster’s data? I couldn’t find it anywhere on the CDC’s site and I was looking weekly.
Finally, on February 3, 2021, almost four months after Oster’s article, the CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, stated at a press conference:
There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated.
Later that day, though, White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated that Walensky’s statement was not “official guidance” from the CDC. People who are trying to use government information could be forgiven for not knowing which government official to believe.
Interestingly, when the CDC guidance on reopening was published on February 12, it contained language that a strong union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), had suggested. The new language, as the New York Post pointed out in a May 1 editorial, softened the guidance somewhat. One such line that had not been in an earlier CDC draft was this: “In the event of high community-transmission results from a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, a new update of these guidelines may be necessary.” One could argue that the AFT has information that the CDC doesn’t. But does anyone really think that the CDC wouldn’t have thought of this on its own? Moreover, if the argument is that the AFT should have input into the CDC guidance based on its knowledge of teachers’ situations, wouldn’t it also have made sense for parents qua parents to have input? Yet it doesn’t appear that they did.