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The atomistic consumer model for COVID response is bad in all of its forms


To follow up on Paul’s post below, I think there’s a reason that Matt discussed the godawful Atlantic article as if it was an empirical description of a banal fact rather than the polemic affirmatively arguing that smarmy nihilistic indifference toward the pandemic was a good thing, indeed a point of moral superiority. For that matter, it’s probably why the editors of the Atlantic decided to excrete it. I think a lot of liberals have ended up with a softer versions of Walther’s crackpot one, and it’s worth discussing since some actual Democratic elected officials are now on board:

Incidentally, Walther also goes on a rant about outdoor mask wearing. Since virtually nobody is advocating for requiring routine outdoor mask usage it’s a pure red herring, although it’s also instructive to see people like Walther pivot from “live and let live” when it comes to vaccination to absolutely losing their shit whenever someone freely chooses to wear a mask in a low-risk environment.

The more important point here is Polis’s statement. I don’t have strong feelings about the policy, pe se. My own general preference would be a slightly more restrictive version of what’s being done in New York City right now — require masks in cases where the burden of wearing is de minimis like public transit and indoor retail shopping, while relying on proof of vaccination for things like indoor dining, concerts and gyms. But particularly given that even in blue jurisdictions state enforcement of mask mandates is virtually non-existent, the effects are pretty marginal either way.

What I more strongly object to is Polis’s framing this as a matter of individual choice and responsibility. His argument is that collective measures were appropriate before the widespread availability of vaccines, but now everyone should be on their own:

That’s the kinda thing I didn’t hesitate to do in the emergency. The emergency is over. You know, public health [officials] don’t get to tell people what to wear; that’s just not their job. Public health [officials] would say to always wear a mask because it decreases flu and decreases [other airborne illnesses]. But that’s not something that you require; you don’t tell people what to wear. You don’t tell people to wear a jacket when they go out in winter and force them to [wear it]. If they get frostbite, it’s their own darn fault. If you haven’t been vaccinated, that’s your choice. I respect that. But it’s your fault when you’re in the hospital with COVID.

Now, to be clear I’m not trying to equate Polis and Yglesias with Walther here. They aren’t anti-public-health nihilists, they’re not trying to undermine vaccinations, and they don’t believe in preempting mask requirements where local communities want them. But this framing is still wrong and pernicious for two reasons:

  • A pandemic isn’t matter of individual choice and responsibility. It is a collective action problem that requires collective action in response. The we-need-to-move-on liberals, though they generally support vaccination efforts and in some cases mandates, are using exactly the arguments being used to undermine vaccination. And, indeed, if you agree with Polis that people who don’t get vaccinated are only hurting themselves, it becomes very hard to argue that anyone should be required to take the vaccine.
  • But the even larger problem here is that it’s not true. People who choose not to get vaccinated — and hence to prolong and intensify the pandemic — aren’t just hurting themselves! Not even close. Especially if you’re under 65, taking the vaccine does indeed make it extremely unlikely that you will die from COVID. But there’s no vaccine for, say, not being able to get medical care after a car accident because your local hospital is full of COVID denialists who get severely ill. (Relatedly, the atrociously misleading term “elective surgery” is having roughly the same deleterious impact on the discourse that the massively overbroad definition of “weapons of mass destruction” had on Iraq War discourse.) The idea that COVID mitigation measures are comparable to being told what kind of jacket to wear is just silly and irresponsible, and plays straight into the hands of MAGA anti-vaxx cranks.

Obviously, not every individual anti-COVID measure is justified by a cost-benefit analysis, and reasonable people can disagree about where the line is in particular cases. But the idea that because the vaccine is widely available we should just move on and make it every-consumer-for-themselves is very, very wrong. And there’s real reason for concern that more people on the left will start taking the consumerist angle to its logical conclusion:

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