Considering two Roman legal maxims may help us navigate the crisis which has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic.
Americans are an obedient people, especially when summoned in response to a national crisis. Citizens bought war bonds to support U.S. soldiers fighting enemies overseas, submitted to rationing and blackout orders (and cooperated in scrap drives) during World War II, and participated in civil defense drills during the Cold War. An entire generation practiced “duck and cover” and retreating to the nearest fallout shelter in the event of a nuclear attack. Obedience, however, depends on a fragile bond of trust, and our national leaders have recklessly tested the limits of that bond during the COVID-19 pandemic. The limits, although elastic, are nearing the breaking point.
In the guise of fighting a public health emergency, the public has endured a de facto national quarantine (even for healthy adults), business closures (many of them likely to be permanent), the shuttering of schools, bans on worship services, social distancing mandates, and of course the now-ubiquitous—but previously unheard of—command to wear face masks in public.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases serves as the nation’s COVID czar, began the flip-flopping in early 2020, when he mandated the wearing of masks, after previously opining on the news show 60 Minutes that “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” In fact, Fauci went even further, suggesting that mask-wearing could be counter-productive for the general public. Fauci’s early advice was consistent with the then-prevailing “scientific consensus,” as reflected by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), both of which recommended mask-wearing for healthy people only when taking care of those who are sick or suspected of having the virus.
The science abruptly changed to dictate mask-wearing by everyone, everywhere, at least until a vaccine could be developed. Fauci even suggested that the public would be safer wearing two masks in public (contrary to CDC guidelines), before quickly reversing himself and admitting that “There’s no data that indicates that that is going to make a difference.”
A similar reversal occurred in March 2020, when authorities decreed a “temporary” ban on large public gatherings in order to avoid overwhelming health care facilities with gravely infected patients. Under the rubric of “flattening the curve,” to avoid an impending tsunami of hospital admissions, an unprecedented shutdown of the nation’s economy was ordered. Even though hospitals never overflowed—indeed, emergency facilities in New York went largely unused–the initial two weeks have stretched into 12 months. To varying degrees across the country, effects of the shutdown persist despite the manifest misconception of the original rationale for the stay-at-home orders, exacting an incalculable toll on the American economy and millions of schoolchildren deprived of class instruction.
Make no mistake: COVID-19 is a deadly disease that has taken nearly 600,000 lives—albeit largely limited to a specific, well-defined demographic. No one disputes that the pandemic was a serious public health problem. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it has become clear to many Americans that the public health establishment completely mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic. The overwhelming majority of those who were infected did not become seriously ill; many did not even know they were infected, or recovered quickly after experiencing mild symptoms.
The risk of mortality for healthy people under the age of 60 is less than one percent and for children is essentially zero. The priority should have been to isolate only vulnerable populations—the elderly and those with certain underlying medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, or chronic lung disease—rather than quarantine everyone. States that took such an approach, such as Florida, have fared well in comparison with those taking more draconian measures, such as New York, California, and Michigan. As I wrote in Law & Liberty in June 2020, after government “experts” threw millions of Americans out of work, “Congress hurriedly enacted a multi-trillion-dollar stimulus package, as casually as one might order a pizza.” This was a public policy fiasco on par with the New Deal, the Vietnam War, and the United States invasion of Afghanistan—other failed misadventures that abused the public’s trust in presumed federal expertise.
But the COVID-19 debacle is not yet over. Fauci refuses to give up the influence he has held for over a year. Requiring or recommending the public wear masks—even at outdoor events and even after being fully-vaccinated—has moved beyond any semblance of “science,” and is now purely an instrument of social control. As of this writing, vaccines are universally available throughout the U.S. Almost 40 percent of American adults have been fully vaccinated, more than half of Americans have received at least a first dose, and about 2.7 million additional shots are being administered daily. The vaccines developed in record time pursuant to Operation Warp Speed produce immunity to COVID-19 at a rate as high as 95 percent. The unknown—but undoubtedly large—percentage of Americans who have already been infected by the virus and consequently have developed antibodies are effectively immune from re-infection. Thus, the immune portion of the population is likely approaching two-thirds.
By all accounts, transmission of the COVID-19 virus is airborne and most readily spread in close quarters indoors. In the outdoors, natural ventilation, ultraviolet radiation (sunlight), humidity, and heat make infection almost impossible. Studies don’t support wearing masks outdoors. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Documented cases of outdoor Covid-19 transmission are rare. A study in Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, used careful contact tracing and found that only one of 7,324 infection events was linked to outdoor transmission.” This is because COVID-19 “droplets are rapidly dissipated in the air and deactivated by ultraviolet radiation, heat and humidity.”
Accordingly, experts conclude that, based on the science, “you don’t need to wear a mask outdoors….Discarding pointless practices like outdoor masking and obsessive ‘hygiene theater’ would make the continuing necessary precautions, including indoor masking, easier to accept.” Nonetheless, the COVID cult, led by the masked-even-when- on-a-Zoom-call President Joe Biden, perpetuates the fiction that, in the words of a CDC publication entitled How to Protect Yourself & Others, “everyone 2 years and older should wear masks in public.” Even though WHO guidelines dispense with the mask requirement outdoors so long as a three-foot distance from others is maintained, the CDC calls for masking and maintaining a six-foot distance, even for people who are fully vaccinated. This is obedience for obedience’s sake.
Experts complain that the latest CDC guidance is “confusing because it lists too many different stipulations and it’s hard to keep track of all of them.” For example, the CDC publication entitled Choosing Safer Activities recommends that even fully-vaccinated people should wear masks outdoors if they “attend a crowded, outdoor event, like a live performance, parade, or sports event.” John Hinderaker of Power Line asks “If you have been vaccinated, it is just about impossible for you to either catch or transmit covid. So why on God’s green earth do you have to wear a mask at an outdoor sports event?” There is no legitimate answer, of course. The only possible explanation, Hinderaker suggests, is that
There is no argument for wearing masks (which don’t do any good in any event, the case data show) if you have been vaccinated, except one: the harpies can’t tell by looking whether a person has been vaccinated or not. So if vaccinated people take their masks off, the unvaccinated will swiftly follow, and the harpies won’t know whom to shame. That’s the only rationale.
For fully-vaccinated people (who are approaching a majority of Americans), the indoor mask rules make no greater sense. The latest CDC guidance suggests that masks should be worn indoors, even by the fully-vaccinated, if visiting “an uncrowded, indoor shopping center or museum,” going to the movies at an indoor theatre, attending “a full-capacity worship service,” singing “in an indoor chorus,” eating “at an indoor restaurant or bar,” or participating “in an indoor, high intensity exercise class.” These guidelines are nonsensical, at least for the vaccinated public.
For many long months, Americans were told that draconian precautions—contact tracing, social distancing, obsessive hygiene measures, and mask wearing—were required until a vaccine was available. No sooner did the vaccine arrive, and the goalposts were moved. Even with the vaccine, mask wearing (indoors and outdoors!) must continue, the so-called experts proclaim. This is absurd. Americans have been bullied, terrorized with apocalyptic claims of doom, forced to stay home, denied their constitutional right to worship, and in many cases deprived of their livelihoods. Enough is enough. Those who obeyed the commands and got vaccinated should be allowed to return to a normal, pre-pandemic life. Those who choose not to take the universally available vaccine should be allowed to take the risk and live with the potential consequences. The vaccinated majority should not be beholden to the unvaccinated minority.
Benjamin Franklin famously remarked that “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” There is, indeed, an inevitable tradeoff between security and freedom. Freedom entails choice—and risk. The price of security is often submission to external control. COVID-19 was not our first infectious disease outbreak, and it won’t be the last. Public health authorities need to stick to science and avoid alarmism and social control for its own sake. Extreme “social distancing” or “sheltering in place” used to be regarded as a form of mental illness—agoraphobia. Now it is recommended by public health experts. For too long, Americans have meekly obeyed. What happened to the freedom-loving patriots who used to inhabit these United States?
John Hinderaker calls for Americans to begin disobeying our feckless public health czars. He says “We need people to say, I’m taking this damn mask off. And if a harpy complains, to tell her or him to get stuffed. Seriously. The time has come.” I fully concur. The time for patience and forbearance is over. Let freedom ring.