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Our Failed Pandemic Response Represents The Triumph Of Symbol Over Reality


The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is here, and with it will likely come a revival of the failed, slogan-based policies that were widely embraced early in the pandemic: lockdowns, social distancing, mask mandates, and of course vaccines and boosters for everyone, whether you want them or not.

In a video statement Friday, the World Health Organization said that with the arrival of the Omicron variant, the important thing is to “lower your exposure” to the virus and embrace “proven public health measures” like masking, social distancing, avoiding crowded spaces, and so on — all the things, in other words, that made no difference to the spread of Covid the first time around.

What the WHO is proposing, in other words, is not a policy response rooted in science and real-world experience with the pandemic, but one rooted in symbol. Indeed, symbol-based policy has largely come to rule not just our pandemic response, but much of American public life.

Remember “two weeks to stop the spread” last spring? That was a slogan, a symbolic response to justify the first of what would become many government-mandated lockdowns and business closures. It was not an actual solution to a real-world problem, but the sort of thing you get when you put liberal arts majors in charge of public health policy during a global pandemic.

Just because it was a symbol, however, did not mean it did not have real-world consequences. The past 20 months have indeed been full of real-world consequences, some of them dire. But they have not stopped our commitment to symbols over hard realities and trade-offs.

This has been a persistent feature of the pandemic response in the United States and other western countries. In Australia, the authorities are so committed to symbol-based pandemic policies they kept millions of people locked in their homes for months on end and deployed police in riot gear to attack anyone who dared to protest.

We’re not quite there yet, but there is a tendency in American politics going back many years to govern by symbol over reality, even when the consequences are horrible. For example, when activists and lawmakers on the left rally around calls to “defund the police,” they are governing by symbol, not reality. Often, this goes badly. For example, few on the left actually desire the rather predictable results of defunding police departments, which in the real world translates directly to more crime, violence, and lawlessness.

Consider the brazen mass burglaries in San Francisco recently, in which dozens of people looted a string of upscale stores and cannabis dispensaries, and the next day some 80 people burglarized a Nordstrom in Walnut Creek, Calif., 25 miles away. These robberies come amid a sharp increase in shoplifting throughout the city in recent years that has been encouraged by a lack of police response and an aversion to prosecuting property crimes, all of which is directly related to the idea — the symbol — of “defund the police.”

The purpose of “defund the police” as political movement is not, of course, to cause a spike in shoplifting and burglaries, much less violent crime. Its proponents claim it is about social justice and combating “systemic racism” (itself a symbol), but mostly it is about making people feel better about a problem that seem unsolvable.

In practice, using symbols this way works chiefly as a tool to identify allies, form coalitions, and expose enemies. It is a signifier, much like “black lives matter,” “kids in cages,” and the “Green New Deal.” How you respond to these symbols indicates which side you’re on.

The right does this, too. Think “the war on terror” or “the war on drugs,” or even “build the wall.” But no matter which side enacts symbol as policy, the costs are imposed on all of us.

The cost of “the war on terror” symbol, it turns out, was 20 years in Afghanistan with nothing to show for it. Closer to home, the costs are more immediately felt. American cities governed by left-wing activists, like San Francisco and Seattle, routinely enact symbol-based policies that almost always end up having unintended, acute negative consequences.

That’s how you get, for example, members of the city council in Washington, D.C., asking Mayor Muriel Bowser to stop clearing out homeless encampments in the winter, even though it would mean moving the homeless from tents to housing. Or as my colleague Emily Jashinsky put it, “urging the city to enable illegal outdoor living to prevent hypothermia.”

What, you might ask, is the symbol at work here? It is something like, “homelessness is not a crime,” and it functions exactly as all the others do. A desire to do something about homelessness ends up, by way of a symbol, creating a policy that encourages and enables homelessness during the most dangerous months of the year.

Why do we do this? Why do we consistently act as though a symbol can actually solve very complex and intractable problems in the real world? The answer to that question is itself complex, but in short the answer is that some problems cannot be solved by policy, or any amount of government action. Some problems are in fact impossible to solve, even given unlimited government power. So instead of facing that reality and grappling with its implications, we conjure up symbols and pretend they are solutions.

In doing so, we feel good about ourselves, because what matters in a world defined by symbols is not the consequences of our actions or policy choices, but the ability to choose actions or policies based on their correspondence to the symbol.

That brings us back to the Omicron variant. When public health authorities begin lecturing us once again about how we have to stay in our homes, wear masks, and keep society locked down, remember that they are not really proposing solutions to a complex real-world problem.

At best, they are pretending to have solutions to a difficult and likely unsolvable problem rather than admit there is no solution. At worst, they are using symbols to identify allies and enemies, to find out who will comply with the government’s newfound pandemic powers, and who will resist.