The Fairfax County, Va. teachers union is reportedly petitioning the school board and superintendent to postpone all in-person learning until August 2021.
“Science and Health Safety Data support and require that no one return to in-person instruction until there is a widely available and scientifically proven vaccine or highly effective treatment,” a letter from the union reads. They demand that reopening be conditioned on zero community transmission of COVID-19 for two weeks.
It’s deeply ironic that the teachers union of one of the farthest-left school districts in the country can’t see that their intense concern over reopening schools isn’t driven by objective “science and health data,” but highly subjective risk assessments shaped by their privilege. According to data scientists at the technology company Qualtrics, evidence so far indicates schools only produce infection rates well under half of 1 percent out of students and staff, to say nothing of the much lower hospitalization rates in a cohort far younger than the general population.
The woke left, from which most of the lockdown zealotry comes, believes our understanding of race and “class” relations, even morality itself, is supposedly fundamentally shaped by people’s access to resources and power. Yet they are either oblivious or in denial about how the privilege of living in an age of advanced medicine and relative domestic tranquility has shaped their understanding of social responsibility since the disease emerged.
It’s well past time we scrutinize the fear of COVID-19 and fervor for pandemic restrictions as artifacts of 21st-century privilege, if we’re ever to regain the perspective necessary to finally get back to normal.
We live in an age of rapidly advancing medical technologies, where people survive deadly cancers at record rates, other diseases like measles and polio have been virtually eradicated, and bacterial plagues are all but things of the past. We have onboard computers that alert us to potential traffic collisions, GPS systems that help us locate lost hikers, and medications that allow people to “choose” when they die, painlessly.
The child mortality rate has plummeted from 450 to less than 10 per 100,000 since 1800. Life expectancy is now twice as long as it was 160 years ago, from less than 40 years on average in 1860 to nearly 80 years today.
COVID-19 has an estimated 95 percent survival rate for those older than 70, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Its victims on average have a handful of years left to live: the average life expectancy in Florida is 79.7 years, while the average age of those who die with COVID is about 76 years.
Yet our increasing, unprecedented control over our physical wellbeing has made death from an unanticipated novel virus, even in old age, seem morally unacceptable to many. Case in point, Trump’s encouragement not to fear the virus was criticized as “offensive” by a woman who lost her 95-year-old grandfather to the virus. In what other time and place would this be seen as a reasonable assessment?
Indeed, we haven’t faced down any grave dangers in the recent past that would remind us what a true blessing it is to live to 95, to put this very small risk to younger people into perspective. We’re nearly 30 years removed from the Cold War and 50 from the last serious pandemic (the ’09 “swine flu” turned out to be quite mild).
Although the threat of terror post-9/11 has changed a lot about our world, many millennials were too young to remember that terrible event or the weeks of anxiety that followed. The War on Terror has been fought overseas, offering most Americans the luxury of pushing it out of our everyday awareness.
Add to all these blessings the extensive testing available to us in the COVID era, where just a few strands of viral RNA in symptomless people can be detected, and millions of people can be easily frightened by “millions of cases” of a virus that has an estimated 99.8 percent survival rate for those under 70.
Yet if we remove the blinders of extended life spans and test-and-trace technology, we can see how far we’ve drifted from how previous generations thought about infectious diseases, even ones comparable to COVID-19. During the Hong Kong flu of 1968 that killed an estimated 100,000 Americans in a country with a significantly smaller population, not only were there no lockdowns, but no sanctimonious lectures about “staying home to save lives” or blaming rising cases on lack of social distancing.
Even the New York Times dispassionately notes the Hong Kong flu kills “less than one percent” of infected cases at the end of one report after matter-of-factly discussing absenteeism as high as 50 percent in Europe due to the virus. The Lancet’s review of the epidemic notes newspapers generally “behaved responsibly during the pandemic” even as the health ministry declined to roll out any non-pharmaceutical interventions.
By “responsibility,” they meant not panicking and guilting the public, who were expected to carry on as normal. In the COVID era, that concept has been turned on its head: if we aren’t afraid, we’re simply heartless.
It’s important to remember we had a pretty good idea of COVID’s infectiousness and lethality before it even hit our shores. Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested based on the evidence available in March that COVID would be akin to a “severe seasonal influenza.”
No, science didn’t destroy the economy, rot our social fabric with loneliness, and turn fellow Americans against each other. Privilege did. A relatively mild disease (compared to the Spanish flu or typhoid fever) easily knocked us out of our narrow comfort zone, and we let fear control our entire way of life, to even form the basis of our understanding of responsibility, where people who hug each other at parties are considered “stupendously reckless.”
Perhaps the left is right: privilege does influence our conception of morality, this time by providing plenty of dry tinder for a spark of fear. Many Americans today are so caught up in fear they can barely make it out of their homes or show their whole faces in public.
In contrast, C.S. Lewis implored a generation facing the immeasurably greater threat of nuclear holocaust to “pull ourselves together,” and that if we were to be destroyed in a nuclear blast, “Let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading…chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep.”
Normal life will not return until we pull ourselves together and the vast majority of us, for whom COVID isn’t a serious threat, resume doing “sensible and human things.” There’s nothing more woke than that.