More than a century ago, Mark Twain identified two fundamental problems that would prove relevant to the COVID pandemic. “How easy it is to make people believe a lie,” he wrote, “and how hard it is to undo that work again!”
No convincing evidence existed at the pandemic’s start that lockdowns, school closures and mask mandates would protect people against the virus, but it was remarkably easy to make the public believe these policies were “the science.”
Undoing this deception is essential to avoid further hardship and future fiascos, but it will be exceptionally hard to do. The problem is that so many people want to keep believing the falsehood.
Adults meekly surrendered their most basic liberties, cheered on leaders who devastated the economy and imposed two years of cruel and unnecessary deprivations on their children. They don’t want to admit these sacrifices were in vain.
They’re engaging in what social psychologists call “effort justification,” which has been observed in studies of painful initiation rituals for fraternities and other groups. Once people endure the pain, they convince themselves that it must have been worthwhile even when their reward is actually worthless.
If one brief bad experience can transform people’s thinking, imagine the impact of the pandemic’s ceaseless misery. It’s been a two-year-long version of Hell Week, especially in America’s blue states, with Anthony Fauci and Democratic governors playing the role of fraternity presidents humiliating the pledges.
Americans obediently donned masks day after day, stood six feet apart, disinfected counters and obsessively washed their hands while singing “Happy Birthday.” They forsook visits to friends and relatives and followed orders to skip work and church. They forced young children to wear masks on the playground and in the classroom — a form of hazing too extreme even for Europe’s progressive educators.
The public needs to learn what went wrong during the pandemic, but they’re not going to hear it from the Biden administration. For now, the best opportunity for a public airing of the facts may be the 2022 election campaign. Some candidates are already attacking the lockdowns and mask mandates, and pandemic strategies could become a major issue in the 2024 presidential race, especially if Ron DeSantis runs on his success as Florida’s governor.
Florida employed some of the least restrictive COVID policies, avoiding lockdowns and mask mandates, and it still fared as well or better than the national average in measures of age-adjusted COVID mortality and overall excess mortality (how many more deaths than normal from all causes occurred during the pandemic).
Florida flourished economically by comparison with other states, especially California, which imposed singularly strict COVID mandates and suffered one of the nation’s worst surges in unemployment. Yet California’s overall death toll has been slightly worse than Florida’s.
If California’s cumulative rate of excess mortality equaled Florida’s, about 5,000 fewer Californians would have died during the pandemic. And if California’s unemployment rate equaled Florida’s last year, 500,000 fewer Californians would have been out of work.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are headed southbound after splitting their first two playoff games against the Tampa Bay Lightning—but the journey is a bit more complicated than you might expect.
Instead of flying from Toronto to Florida, the Leafs’ players, coaches, and staff piled into buses and drove to the airport in Buffalo, New York, after their loss on Wednesday night, according to TSN hockey reporter Darren Dreger.
Why the scenic route? Per the current rules governing cross-border travel into the United States, air travelers must show a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of entering the country. But there’s no testing required to drive into the country—so by bussing to Buffalo, the Leafs avoid an unnecessary complication in their travels. They also avoid the possibility of a positive test that keeps one or more players from making the trip at all.
Toronto is not the only National Hockey League (NHL) team doing this. Dreger reports that the Edmonton Oilers had an even more complicated travel schedule to commute to their upcoming playoff games in Los Angeles. Unlike Toronto, Edmonton is not within easy driving distance of an American airport, so the Oilers flew to Vancouver, took buses to Seattle, then boarded planes bound for L.A.
Like with other nonsensical COVID rules, the only thing the testing mandate seems to be accomplishing is the making of creative travel arrangements. It might not rise to the level of, say, New York City mandating vaccines for players on the city’s home teams but exempting visiting players from the same rules, but the testing mandate is clearly not accomplishing a public health purpose.
But folding censorship into the “infodemic” creates an inescapable tension, since democrats as well as autocrats were frequently tempted to address “fake news” about the pandemic through state pressure, if not outright coercion. The Biden administration, for instance, demanded that social media platforms suppress COVID-19 “misinformation,” which it defined to include statements that it deemed “misleading” even if they were arguably or verifiably true.
The problem of defining misinformation is evident from the debate about face masks as a safeguard against COVID-19. After initially dismissing the value of general masking, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decided it was “the most important, powerful public health tool we have.” More recently, the CDC has acknowledged that commonly used cloth masks provide little protection, largely agreeing with critics whose statements on the subject had previously triggered banishment from platforms such as YouTube.
Simon and Mahoney make it clear that they do not favor state speech controls. But their concerns about the ways governments used the pandemic as an excuse to expand their powers are curiously limited. While they view censorship as beyond the pale, they are inclined to see other restrictions on freedom—even sweeping impositions such as stay-at-home orders and mass business closures—as justified by the public health emergency.