The COVID-19 pandemic threw the world upside down in 2020, and the reaction to the virus did not help matters. In a new essay in The Atlantic, Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, is calling for a "pandemic amnesty" for the disastrous response to COVID-19 because people were in the dark about it.
Oster pointed to how in April 2020, her family took absurd prevention measures to prevent infection while hiking outside, like wearing cloth masks and staying away from people. She admits nothing they did would have worked. "But the thing is: We didn't know."
It was because of the lack of knowledge, Oster said, that other draconian prevention measures seemed like a good idea at the time:
Some of these choices turned out better than others. To take an example close to my own work, there is an emerging (if not universal) consensus that schools in the U.S. were closed for too long: The health risks of in-school spread were relatively low, whereas the costs to students’ well-being and educational progress were high. The latest figures on learning loss are alarming. But in spring and summer 2020, we had only glimmers of information. Reasonable people—people who cared about children and teachers—advocated on both sides of the reopening debate.
Another example: When the vaccines came out, we lacked definitive data on the relative efficacies of the Johnson & Johnson shot versus the mRNA options from Pfizer and Moderna. The mRNA vaccines have won out. But at the time, many people in public health were either neutral or expressed a J&J preference. This misstep wasn’t nefarious. It was the result of uncertainty.
One way Oster's reflection falls flat is that the only example of people intending "to mislead and made wildly irresponsible claims" was, "Remember when the public-health community had to spend a lot of time and resources urging Americans not to inject themselves with bleach? That was bad."
"We have to put these fights aside and declare a pandemic amnesty. We can leave out the willful purveyors of actual misinformation while forgiving the hard calls that people had no choice but to make with imperfect knowledge," she continued. "Los Angeles County closed its beaches in summer 2020. Ex post facto, this makes no more sense than my family's masked hiking trips. But we need to learn from our mistakes and then let them go."
The reason why there's the sudden turn of wishing unvaccinated people to be treated as lepers to "please forgive and forget" is because many of those who cheered on the authoritarian response have been proven over and over to be wrong. They know they caused harm and struggle to large portions of the country, and it was all for nothing. While it is true we didn't know much about the virus in March 2020, we understood a lot more by the summer, and yet, Democrats still pushed for lockdowns to continue.
It's not that the reaction to the unknown is the issue. It was the reaction to the known. There should be consequences for those in charge who implemented absurd measures like banning outdoor dining. People were labeled as conspiracy theorists for suggesting the virus originated out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, a theory that has only gained credibility as time has gone on. The White House promised a winter of illness and death for the unvaccinated that never materialized. Mask mandates were put on toddlers in order to go to school. Businesses closed, never to reopen. Senior citizens died alone.
Oh no, @ProfEmilyOster. Many of us won’t ever forgive or forget. Especially when it comes to the seniors who died in nursing homes after leaders flooded their residences with covid patients and never told us or protected them. They knew better. We deserve justice first. https://t.co/b7pFsW0NWx— Janice Dean (@JaniceDean) October 31, 2022
Pandemic amnesty? No, we need a pandemic reckoning.