The COVID Aftermath: Repentance and Reconciliation - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The COVID Aftermath: Repentance and Reconciliation
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Literally the week before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, there was a slaughter. Dozens of state and local mask mandates and vaccine requirements were cut down as they stood, freeing American students and citizens from nearly two years of government mandates unlike anything we’ve seen before.

This made me happy. It was exactly what I’d wanted, the exact scenario that I’d been anticipating since May 2020 and actively advocating since vaccines were widely available and it became clear that mask mandates made no impact on rates of COVID cases.

We have finally reached what we have so desperately needed: an agreement about free choice regarding COVID mitigations. We now agree that these mandates are not needed and that people should be allowed to make their own decisions on their own timeline using their own sense of risk assessment. This was always the only possible endgame for COVID restrictions; the hidden debate has been about when our policies should most appropriately reflect this reality.

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This is in stark contrast to our approach the last two years. The terms of the debate over COVID restrictions were set early with the expectation that COVID infections could be entirely prevented. This view was promoted by public health officials and encoded into COVID mitigation strategies. For months into the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held to “near-zero incidence” thresholds that could shut down an entire county if a few families tested positive. Under this guidance, businesses were shuttered, schools were closed, volunteers were turned away, and the sick were isolated from their friends and families.

Bill Wilson/The American Spectator

Bill Wilson/The American Spectator

In a scenario where COVID really could be eradicated, these mitigations would be seen as harsh and painful but necessary. But it became clear within a few months that eradication was not possible. Once we came to this realization, these harsh restrictions transformed from a necessary pain to prevent sickness to an extra layer of self-imposed punishment.

This realization that mitigations were not fulfilling their promise did not come to everyone at the same time. Some people realized this a few months into the pandemic, and some realized it after the winter surge of 2020 hit every region regardless of their COVID mitigation plans. Some people (including many of our elected officials and decision-makers at the CDC) are still struggling to realize this. After two years of mandates and mitigations, however, we have largely come to a bipartisan cultural agreement that we need to stop and let people make their own choices. That agreement should be celebrated, yet the division remains.

Resentment

The reason we have such a deep resentment in spite of wide agreement is because agreement simply isn’t enough to mend the damage that has been done over these past two years. We’ve all been slowly coming to the same conclusion, yet our social and media cultures constantly have insisted that, at any one moment in time, everyone on one side of the debate is smart and good and everyone on the other side is cruel and dumb. For two years we’ve made moral judgments of each other over something that we all now accept. As such, it’s not enough to say, “Okay, I don’t like masks anymore, can we just drop the mandates?” We are far past that point. We need something akin to repentance before we can find reconciliation. 

I don’t want this essay to be a commentary on broad social movements. We will never get “liberals” to apologize to “conservatives” for mask or vaccine mandates, and we will never get “conservatives” to apologize to “liberals” for not taking COVID seriously enough.

For one thing, those labels are close to meaningless in the realm of COVID. Attitudes on policies to manage this disease have been all over the map, and political boundaries have not been a particularly good marker for COVID mitigation decisions. This time last year, in the interest of capturing a precise moment in history, I began to interview as many people in as many states as possible about their state and local COVID response. I found that the on-the-ground response between blue and red states was far more similar than it was disparate. States without mask mandates still had substantial mask compliance, and states with mask mandates still had people ignoring the rules.

But beyond the political spaghetti that is pandemic policy preferences, anyone who wants to set one side against the other will always be able to haul out a particularly bad view and use it as an avatar for “your team said this.” This strategy has been used by bad actors to drive a wedge between friends and families for political advantage. Reconciliation isn’t possible between broad ideologies or political entities.

Repentance and reconciliation are only possible in the context of mutual respect and community, so that is where we need to start.

This is where the equality of COVID outcomes is so important. Finally, two years after the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we are all in the same boat. When even New York City has removed its masking and vaccine mandates, we can conclude in a bipartisan way that these mandates were not a plausible or optimal long-term strategy. There are still some stragglers as some venues may require a negative COVID test, but we can all see that organizing our every interaction around COVID spread is not something we can reasonably demand from government policy.

Once we understand that the only possible long-term equilibrium is to remove all COVID restrictions, we can start to see that everyone will come to this conclusion at some point. This is where humility needs to infiltrate our minds. The ultimate answer was here all this time; we just needed to find our path to it. We can’t allow ourselves to harbor anger that another person figured this out sooner or later than we did. Everyone had to make their own journey to this destination, and this gives us the essential common ground to start the path back to unity.

Recognizing our common ground is the easy part. The more difficult task is to repair the relationships that have been broken along the way. We need to renew the art of repentance.

Repentance

Repentance is far more than changing course. It is regret for past behavior and a promise for the future. It’s not enough to finally break down and say, “We don’t need mandates”; there needs to be a recognition that the people who were saying that we don’t need mandates last year were doing so in good faith and that the implication that they took their position without care and thought was demeaning and dehumanizing. These people don’t need to demand an apology from those who disagreed at the time, but they are certainly owed an apology for the implication that they were disagreeing due to ignorance or carelessness. The goal here is rebuilding relationships, and that cannot be done while one side refuses the other this dignity.

Recognizing the dignity of dissent and inquiry is far more important than relitigating any single fact or position.

There also needs to be a reckoning about the harms that have been caused during this pandemic. This damage falls into two categories: institutional and personal. The institutional damage has been enormous and wide-ranging. People have been fired. Children have been denied education. The dying have been denied the comfort of their friends and family and the survivors denied the comfort of a proper funeral. Stephanie Murray recently wrote in the Atlantic of the terrible toll that children in speech therapy have been forced to endure. Much of this is ongoing, even at this late stage. 

The personal damage is often less visibly severe but more emotionally meaningful. Very few of us were fired by a personal friend over a vaccine mandate, but many relationships have been strained or broken between people who have questioned the value of COVID mitigations and those who have accepted whatever restrictions are imposed. Statements of even minor dissent have driven instinctual revulsions and often personal denunciation. “I think you are wrong” is a difficult enough conversation to have with a friend, but many of these escalated into accusations of dishonesty, cruelty, or indifference. Any real repentance requires the recognition of these personal and institutional harms and the admission that those who argued against them did so in a spirit of honesty and in the interest of dignity.

Recognizing the dignity of dissent and inquiry is far more important than relitigating any single fact or position or which exact date it became socially permissible to hold that position. Mask mandates may have disappeared overnight, but the political will to make them disappear took many months to build. During those months, the people who were accused of carelessness were laying groundwork, changing minds, slowly but surely gathering a consensus that made the dismissal of these mitigations possible. Many of them did so at risk to their personal reputations or the strain of broken relationships. Those relationships can’t be repaired without first recognizing that we would not all now agree if they had not first disagreed. (READ MORE from Matt Shapiro: Many Schools Are Choosing to Fail the COVID Test)

While apologies and a desire to repair and rebuild our relationships is a necessary condition of reconciliation, it is not sufficient. While most of these pandemic mitigations are finally falling away, there are still some straggling limitations. At this writing, toddlers are still masked in much of New York City, federal judges are still imposing mask mandates on unwilling counties, vaccine mandates remain in place in California, and masks are still mandatory on airplanes and public transit with no end in sight.

Reconciliation and the Road Ahead

Even the abandonment of many mitigations has come with the caveat that they may return with the next surge. That would be an excellent time to demonstrate our newfound unity. Right now, rejecting the use of government pressure to implement any and all pandemic mitigations is our implicit agreement. We need to make that agreement explicit. We quietly agree that masking should be a matter of individual choice. Now we need to loudly agree on it.

After the initial shock of the first months of this pandemic, it was clear that we would need to find a path back to normalcy and that path would, in the end, require nothing more than allowing individuals the ability to assess the danger in the world around them and make their own choices without government or social interference. This lesson extends to every part of life. It should be our choice to mask or not mask, to vaccinate with our own discretion and on our own schedule. We should be able to send our children to school or speech therapy on our terms, using our own faculties of reason and caution. We should be able to visit our sick and mourn our dead, and we need to accept that, whatever path we choose, we choose it with clear eyes and our own calculus of caution.

To the extent that we have denied our friends or family this presumption of dignity in self-determination, we need to apologize and reconcile ourselves to them. There can be no half-measures here. There should be no smug indication that they were totally wrong until the moment we came to agree with them. There shouldn’t be a partisan declaration of superiority or any resentment in this admission. We can’t, under any circumstances, say, “Fine, you got your way. Now can we drop this?”

We can’t drop this because the core of this isn’t about the pandemic. It is about including the dissenters who were ignored and shoved to the periphery even as they were the only ones talking sense in criticizing mandates. They weren’t right because some poll told them to be right. They thought and considered and researched and debated and came to find this truth even as it was labeled misinformation and attacked at the highest levels of power. 

In this, they have earned a place at the table when we discuss next steps. Policy should not be made unilaterally by politicians who ignored the dissenters until they were forced to agree, not through a process of data or scientific investigation, but through the steady grinding away at public patience. Those politicians need to step back and give the floor to the people who now have years of hard-won practical experience in changing hearts and minds.

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