Politics & Policy

End the Covid-Zero Mentality

President Joe Biden meets with members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team in the Roosevelt Room in the White House in Washington, D.C., December 16, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

As the Omicron variant rips through areas of the United States with among the highest vaccination rates in the world, it should be abundantly clear that we will not be able to “end” Covid. But we still have the power to end the “Covid zero” mentality.

The “Covid zero” mentality is an overriding belief that there is some ideal combination of government restrictions and personal behavioral changes that would enable us, in President Biden’s infamous words, to “shut down the virus.”

Ever since the federal, state, and local governments started taking aggressive action against Covid in March 2020, Americans have been taunted by the promise that if we could just get over one hump, Covid madness would be over. In practice, once we got to the top of one hump, another one became visible in the horizon. And then another one. And another one. And another one.

The initial “15 days to slow the spread” is now used only as a punchline. That’s because it ended up getting extended to six weeks, and then months, and for children who were shut out of schools in many parts of the country, over a year. While the slogan may now be treated as an artifact, the central conceit of “15 days to slow the spread” is still with us. That conceit is that if Americans only sacrifice normalcy for a certain period of time, Covid will be over.

When he entered office, Biden called on Americans to wear a mask for just 100 days as a “patriotic duty.” The resulting executive order requiring masks for travel has already been extended to at least next March (over 400 days from his initial regulation). When vaccines became available to everybody who wanted them in the spring, that was also supposed to be the end point. In a town hall event this past July in Cincinnati, Biden declared, “You’re not going to get Covid if you have these vaccinations.” At one point, the CDC even acknowledged that for vaccinated Americans, masking should be seen as an individual choice. Yet the CDC reversed its reversal of its mask guidance during the Delta wave, and, now that the Omicron variant has been breaking through vaccinations with regularity, there is no end in sight. As for the federal travel rules, Anthony Fauci has said that masking on airplanes will never go away.

In a Tuesday speech meant to convince Americans that he had a plan of attack amid rising Omicron cases, Biden rightfully explained that individuals who have chosen to get vaccinated — especially those who have received boosters — have very little reason to be worried about getting severely sick or dying from Covid. He also noted that the current surge was much different from the surge in March 2020, because 200 million people have been fully vaccinated. He correctly said there was no reason to close schools or businesses. Unfortunately, Biden veered off in the wrong direction from there. The fact that vaccines have been effective in virtually eliminating the risk of severe Covid for anybody who chooses to take them should remove the justification for any remaining restrictions on human behavior. Instead, Biden went on about the need for fully vaccinated people to continue wearing masks in public. And he said schoolchildren — who are low risk to begin with and now are eligible to be vaccinated — should also continue to mask up.

“We all want this to be over,” Biden said. “But we’re still in it, and this is a critical moment.”

This was more of the same deluded messaging — that we need to be just a bit more patient and get through this “critical moment,” after which this will be “over” and we can return to normalcy. In reality, there will always be new variants of Covid.

To be sure, we believe that vaccination makes sense for individuals. With nearly 9 billion doses already administered around the world, the Covid vaccines have been put to the test more than any new pharmaceutical product in history, and have been proven to be remarkably safe. They also greatly reduce the chance of becoming seriously ill or dying from Covid. The cost-benefit analysis is clearly in favor of getting vaccinated, which is why we would continue to urge anybody who has not received the shots to get them.

For all their benefits protecting individuals against severe Covid, however, vaccines clearly are not a ticket to the end of Covid more broadly. Given that they appear to have waning efficacy after a few months, it is unrealistic to expect that we’ll keep a critical mass of the global population vaccinated and boosted at all times. Remember, Delta and Omicron emerged in India and Africa, not in the parts of America with low vaccination rates.

The fact that Covid will always be with us should not freak people out but sober them up. In March 2020, the rationale behind restrictions was that reckless individual behavior could have catastrophic consequences for the most vulnerable among us. Whatever one’s views on the efficacy of the restrictions that were put in place back then, by Biden’s own admission, we are in a much different place now that so many have been vaccinated. So we should act like it.

Instead, universities and school districts in blue areas are once again suspending in-person schooling, despite the mounting evidence that the closures had devastating consequences for educational outcomes and student mental health. Meanwhile, Biden is asking vaccinated and boosted Americans and even schoolchildren to keep masking indefinitely.

Some may argue that the policies being implemented now are not as draconian as before. But when we were debating lockdown measures in early 2020, the understanding was that the unprecedented intrusions of the government into our everyday lives were only being contemplated for a short period of time during a national emergency. Now, we have to operate under the assumption that any measures that have survived this long could endure forever. That’s why the only way to truly return to normal is to accept the fact that Covid isn’t going anywhere and reject the Covid-zero mentality altogether.

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