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On Lockdown Fatigue and the Erosion of Credibility

As elected officials impose heavy new pandemic-related restrictions across much of the country ahead of the holiday season, many Americans are grappling with how to respond.  It's getting really bad out there, in spite of the heartening news that help is on the way.  There are contingents of citizens who will either fully comply with whatever the government tells them they must and mustn't do, as others overtly resist the measures with acts of civil disobedience.  But a great many others are conflicted.  They want to stay safe and help protect others, but they're not willing to endure another painful round of harsh measures and lockdowns -- and the accompanying wave of economic and health-related consequences.  Part of the problem, I suspect, is that millions of people are weary of this nightmare, anxious about how many more peaks and valleys they can realistically weather, and distrustful of some of the politicians making these decisions.


When a governor's spouse sought special treatment during initial spring lockdowns, people noticed.  When politicians and elite media organizations applied different rules for public gatherings -- disfavoring religious worship, while favoring 'racial justice' protests and riots, for instance -- people noticed.  When celebrities and other 'special' people are given exemptions to rules (like the Speaker of the House), people notice.  When political leaders violate or bend their own official regulations and guidance, people notice.  These examples are from the last two weeks alone:


Chicago's Mayor is particularly symbolic of the problem.  She is telling people to cease participation in weddings, funerals, and traditional Thanksgiving plans, having just joined throngs in the streets to celebrate a political election outcome, saying it was acceptable because the crowds would have gathered whether she'd joined in the revelry or not.  She also claimed that everyone present was wearing a mask, even though she tweeted video of herself shouting into a bullhorn while maskless.  The standards are always different for her, across multiple subjects:

Lightfoot drew ire for flouting state lockdown regulations in April by getting a haircut. In a public service announcement, she had explicitly told Chicagoans that "getting your roots done" was not essential, but she said that didn't apply to her because she is "the public face of this city." "I'm on national media and I'm out in the public eye," Lightfoot told reporters in April. "I take my personal hygiene very seriously. I felt like I needed to have a haircut. I'm not able to do that myself, and so, I got a haircut. 

As many Americans who have sacrificed greatly over the past nine months contemplate their actions as new restrictions are threatened and enacted, it is entirely natural and understandable that they might bake these examples of self-serving hypocrisy into their decision-making calculations. If powerful people cannot be bothered to set scrupulous examples, why should the rest of us be forced to endure more pain and discomfort? This Washington Examiner editorial captures things quite well, in my estimation:

The fears of many public health officials are becoming true, as all indications are that the U.S. is in the midst of a brutal surge in coronavirus infections...Especially troubling is that unlike in the initial wave when cases were surging in select places, this time, hot spots are developing across the country. This means that as hospitals reach capacity, it won’t be as easy to shift resources into multiple trouble spots, as was the case with New York earlier this year...With families traveling from around the country to convene for communal meals and spending extensive time in close contact, the risks are enormous. To date, family gatherings have been one of the leading ways that the coronavirus has spread. Unfortunately, the U.S. enters this season with the public health community having squandered its credibility with the American public.

Early on, the American people were told that they had to go into lockdown for just a few weeks. The purpose, everybody was told, was to “flatten the curve,” so there wasn’t a huge spike in cases at a given time that could collapse the medical system. The problem was that even after the curve had been flattened, and the medical system was in no way in danger, officials for months lobbied against efforts to reopen activity. "Flatten the curve" was replaced by some vague notion of returning to normal when things were "safe." While the nation did not remain in perpetual lockdown as it had in March, large public gatherings have still been canceled. People have done without typical rituals from Memorial Day to July 4 to Labor Day. And most importantly, in much of the nation, schools remain closed, despite the detrimental impact on children and families and the scant evidence that the virus poses a danger to either students or teachers or that schools have been a source of community spread...On top of this, public health officials, political leaders, and media figures have demonstrated hypocrisy. Though they warned against large gatherings, they cheered Black Lives Matters protests and pro-Biden victory celebrations in large cities.

Perhaps more significant than the maddening double standards is the goalpost-shifting -- under which 15 days to flatten the curve morphed into longer lockdowns and lingering restrictions, including some (like school closures) that were not backed by remotely adequate science). People are likely wary of cooperating with more "short" or "temporary" measures because they aren't confident that they'll be as brief or fleeting as promised. That lesson has been internalized.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has thankfully argued against new lockdowns, is unfortunately contributing to the prevailing sense of people being strung along by suggesting that mitigation steps (masking, distancing) may need to continue for an indefinite period of time even after people are vaccinated.  And again, it's not mere inconvenience and slight unpleasantness that many people are trying to avoid. It's strained and ruined livelihoods, serious mental and emotional health issues, and genuine physical health threats. And for businesses, the capricious nature of punitive decisions like this are devastating:

Eric Nelson, the co-owner of Eem, gave a cut-and-dry forecast for the Oregon restaurant industry on Wednesday: “We’re all f**ked.” Nelson recently installed covered patios around the celebrated Thai barbecue restaurant, with individual dining cabanas for customers, built-in ventilation to make sure each dining stall still had air flow, and heaters at each table. Starting November 18, those cabanas will sit empty. Today, Gov. Kate Brown announced that restaurants and bars statewide will have to close for all dine-in service, including outdoor or patio dining. This pause starts next Wednesday and is intended to last for at least two weeks, but it could extend further; Brown says the restrictions will stay in place in Multnomah County for at least four weeks, re-evaluating based on the number of cases in the county. The decision comes after restaurant and bar owners spent the past weeks and months investing in technology and structures meant to create safe onsite dining, be it outdoor patios with individual heaters or indoor air-scrubbers and HVAC systems. Many of those upgrades cost thousands of dollars, as reported by more than a dozen restaurant and bar owners across the city; now, many restaurant owners counting on the return of business are facing another nosedive. Without government aid, those business owners say the future looks dire.

Unfortunately, the federal government remains stuck at a dysfunctional impasse on new COVID relief, dimming the picture even further for many businesses and families.  I'll leave you with recommendations from the deeply informed and eminently reasonable Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who writes that targeted steps over coming weeks and months can help tide the nation over to the point when effective vaccines start to put us on the path back to normalcy:

Governors and local leaders should first reinforce steps known to be effective: wearing a quality mask, avoiding gatherings and maintaining social distance, especially indoors. Halloween gatherings contributed to the current spread, and Thanksgiving will be no different without more vigilance. At least while infections are widespread and surging, governors and local leaders should mandate the use of masks and impose clear and consistent plans to restrict gatherings. They should remind people to avoid large groups at Thanksgiving and stay home if possible.  This doesn’t mean broad lockdowns. State and local leaders can tie restrictions to expected hospital strain, tailored to hot spots and not necessarily the entire state. Restrictions can focus on known sources of spread, such as bars and nightclubs. Congress should help by supporting affected businesses with another round of paycheck protection. A priority should be helping schools that are open, especially elementary schools, where the risk of infection is lower and the benefits of in-class instruction are considerable.


Finally, he also notes that the Swedish government is abandoning the 'Swedish model,' as outbreaks worsen in that country and in much of Europe:


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