Amnesty for imperious pandemic authorities? Don’t even ask. But truth and reconciliation? THAT, we can discuss.
Toward the end of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), Flounder, a gawky freshman pledge, cries inconsolably because the older members of his fraternity have destroyed the Lincoln Continental his older brother lent him for the weekend. Otter, an oleaginous charmer, pats Flounder on the back with mock compassion and says, “C’mon, Flounder. … You can't spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes. … You f**ked up! You trusted us! … Hey, make the best of it!”
In an Atlantic article (Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty), Brown University economics professor Emily Oster channels Otter; and Oster-as-Otter invites the American public to assume the position of Flounder. Oster’s solution to nearly three years of “totally misguided” (her words) COVID-19 policies is “Let’s declare a pandemic amnesty.” After an endless torrent of mandated mayhem—grandma dying alone, funerals by Zoom, businesses bankrupted, educations wrecked, social fabric shredded—Oster says, “I certainly don’t need to dissect and rehash that time for the rest of my days. … Moving on is crucial now.” In other words, “You can't spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes. … Hey, make the best of it!”
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Oster describes some of the havoc that draconian COVID mitigation strategies brought down upon Americans. But she leaves out the most dangerous legacy of that period—sadistic intolerance of anyone who dared to challenge the always-inconsistent, ever-shifting conventional wisdom. Dissenters were to be vilified, ostracized, humiliated, censored, deplatformed, and fired. By ignoring this pervasive uncivil and anti-scientific behavior, Oster invites more of the same.
Oster’s pandemic amnesty would reinforce the rapidly increasing problem of ideology masquerading as science. In 2021, I wrote of the public health sector’s intolerant political monoculture (Conservatives and Public Health: A Warm Welcome Into a Cold Climate). In that article, a leading light of that sector (and self-described “emphatic liberal Democrat”) described the “palpable absolutism and lazy groupthink among progressives” in his profession. He blamed this monoculture for lagging vaccination rates. Also in 2021, I described how the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Schools are pushing medical professionals to accept an ideological catechism of speech control, wealth redistribution, racial essentialism, and scientific obeisance (The Pall of Politics Descends Upon American Medicine).
Errors and overreach during COVID
Oster describes her family wearing useless cloth masks during hikes on open trails and her 4-year-old son shouting a now-discredited public health command at a passing child. She adds:
Los Angeles County closed its beaches in summer 2020. Ex post facto, this makes no more sense than my family’s masked hiking trips.
Many experts, Oster added, were wrong about which vaccines would be most effective. She says—correctly:
Given the amount of uncertainty, almost every position was taken on every topic. And on every topic, someone was eventually proved right, and someone else was proved wrong. In some instances, the right people were right for the wrong reasons. In other instances, they had a prescient understanding of the available information.
Whether right or wrong in their methodologies on combatting COVID-19, the public health hierarchy and their audience of policymakers failed to consider tradeoffs:
Many people have neglected their health care over the past several years. Notably, routine vaccination rates for children (for measles, pertussis, etc.) are way down.
Oster describes how misguided public health measures wreaked havoc on the educations of a generation of American schoolchildren:
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. …
… Student test scores have shown historic declines, more so in math than in reading, and more so for students who were disadvantaged at the start.
Oster implores us to forgive and forget because:
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.
Indeed, the early data were conflicting and incomplete. And yes, it was inevitable that much early advice would prove wrong. Those mistakes would, indeed, be entirely forgivable, had they emerged from an environment in which “reasonable people” were, in fact, “debating” the science and the tradeoffs that society faced in dealing with that science. But the primary problem was not scientific uncertainty, but rather scientistic incivility. Oster’s own words put paid to her “reasonable people” fiction. Speaking of herself, she said:
Because I thought schools should reopen and argued that kids as a group were not at high risk, I was called a “teacher killer” and a “génocidaire.”
So, for disagreeing (partially) with one particular public health diktat, Oster was smeared in the basest terms—and this was standard operating procedure with the advocates of public health orthodoxy. There were campaigns of disparagement, vilification, censorship, and personal destruction against those who dared to deviate from the official line. The media, with epidemiology degrees from the University of Wikipedia, portrayed official pronouncements—the things that Oster admits were “totally misguided”—as unquestioned truths. Dissidents, no matter how highly credentialed, were accused of spreading anti-scientific falsehoods.
Oster eloquently describes the errors and overreach of public health mandates as the pandemic unfolded: her family’s useless masks, closing beaches, healthcare forgone, keeping schools closed for too long. But some scholars rejected the draconian lockdowns-and-mandates regime early on. In the Great Barrington Declaration, three prominent scientists, supported by a sizable number of other scientists, called instead for focused protection of vulnerable populations in lieu of the blanket lockdowns that Oster admits were overwrought. The response was not one of reasonable people debating, but rather, a sustained fusillade of ad hominem attacks and conspiracy-mongering against the dissenters. (I’m not defending the Great Barrington Declaration per se. Perhaps it was, in fact, misguided but, if so, by Oster’s own admissions, so was more conventional wisdom. She fails to explain why some who erred deserve opprobrium and others, amnesty.)
Some jurisdictions, too, pursued policies of focused protection—relatively normal life for most people and resource-intensive protections for the vulnerable. On a national level, Sweden was the preeminent such dissenter, rejecting the face masks, school and business closings and other strategies pursued by most other countries. They devoted resources to the especially vulnerable populations. How did they fare? That’s a question that Oster’s fabled reasonable people can debate. The evidence provides no slam-dunk proof that Sweden’s approach was misguided—though the country’s leaders have been pilloried in the international press—and by the international public health clerisy.
In the U.S., Florida was the standout dissenter—rejecting calls to close beaches, schools, and businesses and rejecting mask and vaccine mandates. How did Florida fare? Again, reasonable people can debate that. Florida’s COVID death rate is higher than the national median. But educations, incomes, recreation, and social interactions were not demolished. How did the pandemic affect death rates in total—not just death rates from COVID? Did Floridians fare better because other areas of healthcare were less disrupted than elsewhere? Did Floridians experience less in the way of depression, domestic violence, and suicide because they still had lives? Are Florida children more resistant to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) than those in lockdown states? Will Floridians enjoy better health in the future because their incomes and educations were not as damaged as elsewhere? My sense is that the benefits from Florida’s light touch well exceeded the costs. But, again, reasonable people can debate that question. But, once again, public discourse was not dominated by reasonable people debating. Governor Ron DeSantis was pilloried as “DeathSantis.” A fairly typical criticism can be seen in the Daily Beast headline of October 25, 2021:
50,000 Dead, and Depraved DeSantis Is Just Getting Started
with its subtitle:
Biden and the Democrats need to step up their efforts to stop these irresponsible death-cultists
[ADDENDUM (11/14/22): A friend suggested looking at age-adjusted death rates. According to The Bioinformatics CRO, in late September, Florida was 22nd among the states in terms of COVID death rates. That number drops to 31st if one takes into account the high number of elderly in that state.]
While pleading for amnesty and forgiveness, Oster herself plunges into the mire, wielding half-truth and feigned telepathy in pursuit of her argument:
Obviously some people intended to mislead and made wildly irresponsible claims. Remember when the public-health community had to spend a lot of time and resources urging Americans not to inject themselves with bleach?
The barely hidden message is, “Donald Trump told people to inject themselves with bleach, and he did so out of malice.” While Oster’s quote no doubt plays well in the faculty lounge at Brown, it repudiates her plea for civility and for moving past unproductive squabbles—and it does so in two distinct ways.
First, Oster’s quote propagates a long-debunked meme—that Donald Trump urged Americans to drink or inject bleach in order to stave off COVID. The left-leaning fact-checking website PolitiFact concluded that, “No, Trump didn’t tell Americans infected with the coronavirus to drink bleach.” Instead, he asked a science advisor “whether disinfectants could be applied to the site of a coronavirus infection inside the body, such as the lungs”—apparently after hearing about and misunderstanding the nature of some ongoing COVID research. His question was wildly inarticulate and reflected profound scientific naïveté. Had he asked the question in the course of a private meeting, the advisor could have said, “Thanks for the question, Mr. President. That’s not quite what I said. Let me clarify what we’re actually working on.” But, being Donald Trump, he blathered his question in full view of the television cameras, after which other naïve Americans could add additional layers of misinterpretation.
Second, Oster’s quote contends that, “Obviously some people intended to mislead,” a claim that implies that Oster has a telepathic ability to look into the souls of others and discern malice. In doing so, she fails to muster the wisdom inherent in Hanlon’s Razor:
Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.
Lacking Oster’s clairvoyance, it is not at all “obvious” to me that Trump intended to mislead. Similarly, I don’t assume that Oster intended to mislead readers by repeating the debunked bleach meme. I suspect that she just didn’t know that it had been debunked.
[ADDENDUM (11/14/22): The friend mentioned in the above addendum also suggested that, to his ears, Trump’s question to his advisor was not a serious, but misguided question but, rather, a lame attempt at humor. Yet another possibility.]
[NOTE: Each morning, I utter a silent prayer: “On this day, mayest Thou protect me from any need to defend Donald Trump.” Writers and speakers like Ms. Oster regularly thwart that prayer, which mystifies me. With so many legitimate, demonstrable criticisms of the former president available on demand, why bother making stuff up?]
Amnesty no. Truth and Reconciliation yes.
For all these reasons, Oster’s plea for amnesty is unacceptable; but, there is a much better approach—one devised by South African President Nelson Mandela. One of the 20th century’s greatest acts of statesmanship was Mandela’s establishment of a post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Individuals who had been harmed by the evils of Apartheid could vent on how they had suffered. (Mandela, himself, of course, was imprisoned for decades.)
But equally or perhaps more importantly, those who had been the wrongdoers could confess their offenses before the Commission—thereby demonstrating atonement and giving those wronged some reason to at least consider granting forgiveness. The process gave participants powerful motives to look deeply into their own souls and to consider the impact of their past deeds. Some had done terrible things. Some had simply erred. Others had quietly tolerated the presence of evil among them. The Commission wasn’t perfect, though it worked rather well—at least until Mandela passed from the scene.
In contrast, Oster’s proposed amnesty is simply a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for those who foisted grievously misguided policies on a terrified public and who sought the personal destruction of anyone who questioned their wisdom. Far better to consider some equivalent to what Mandela did. In an ideal world—one that does not exist within 150 light-years of our solar system—Donald Trump might go before a COVID Truth and Reconciliation Commission and say:
I never told anyone to inject bleach, but I did fail to grasp the damage that loose-cannon observations by a president could have on Americans. I am very sorry that I spoke without thinking first.
Oster might respond with:
The former president’s comments about bleach were irresponsible and dangerous. But I realize now that he did not actually urge anyone to inject bleach into their veins. And I’m more inclined today to attribute his comments to stupidity than to malice.
Scientists and policymakers who dissented from official diktats could go before the commission and complain about their ill treatment. And those who vilified them could say,
I still disagree with what you wrote, but I acknowledge your credentials and apologize for demanding that you be fired and humiliated. I recognize that science demands argument and mutual respect. The history of medicine is filled with those who faced ridicule, only to be proven right later on. And, to be honest, my policies didn’t work out so well, either.
Oster uses the oft-cited wisdom of George Santayana: “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it,” to which she adds, “but dwelling on the mistakes of history can lead to a repetitive doom loop as well.” She suggests, “Let’s acknowledge that we made complicated choices in the face of deep uncertainty, and then try to work together to build back and move forward.”
As admirable as all of that sounds, Dr. Oster’s proposed amnesty would make reconciliation and forward progress impossible. You cannot forget a history that you have never acknowledged in the first place. Amnesty would short-circuit the reckoning necessary to get past that repetitive doom loop and then to work together and move forward. As unlikely as it is, the brutal honesty of a truth and reconciliation commission could succeed where amnesty would be catastrophic.
Thank you for this article. I want two things going forward: an acknowledgement of the harms done and honest scientific study of the vaccine and its pros/cons.
I don't need to see Nuremberg 2.0, which is being called for in some circles. I don't need to see people go to jail (although some certainly deserve it). I do want forgiveness and reconciliation. However, I feel that the pro-lockdowners and the anti-lockdowners are in two totally different worlds right now. I was glad to see Oster's article, not because I agree with it, but because at least there's the start of an acknowledgement. A terrible tragedy has befallen us all, and it was primarily caused by human cruelty, arrogance, and stupidity.
I hope the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission gains traction.
The mortal sin committed and foist upon an ignorant, scared and gullible public was not that he suggested misguided and uninformed solutions to a global health problem. It was that he violated his oath to preserve and protect the American people by using the pandemic to pander to cult of right wing base … base. He did not care that his words had the power to do harm and proceeded to make vital decisions based solely on his personal interests