In the nearly two years of this pandemic, we have endured not only illness, loss and social isolation, but also the mentally exhausting calculations of how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe under constantly changing variants, infection rates and vaccine protections.
From early on, we had to learn to avoid falling into what psychologists refer to as “all or nothing” thinking — the logical fallacy that either a given situation is a complete success or total failure. Many of us used this distorted way of thinking to conclude that if we couldn’t be completely isolated from potential infection, then we might as well not even try.
This false dichotomy was obviously a bad method of risk assessment — the equivalent of someone claiming they can drive drunk every day because they did it once. But it was tempting in its simplicity, and some of us were more susceptible to it than others.
We all knew (or were) a friend who said she might as well go to restaurants since she was already facing exposure at the workplace. We all had (or were) the uncle who argued in the Zoom call planning an outdoor reunion that some weakness in the plan meant that we might as well just gather comfortably inside without masks.
Over time, however, most of us learned to think more in terms of probabilities than absolutes, shades of gray rather than black or white — even as we might have different opinions about the levels of risk and reward in various activities.
You might think that this collective learning process would have helped in recent months as we found ourselves confronted with the latest new variables in the ever-evolving COVID calculus: a mostly vaccinated population and a new Omicron variant that is highly contagious, less lethal for most vaccinated people than its predecessor, but still very dangerous for vulnerable populations.
Instead, politicians, CEOs and even public health leaders have led a coordinated campaign of regression back into the simplistic and disastrous variant of “all or nothing”: We can’t completely eradicate COVID, so let’s stop even trying to reduce and slow its spread.
During the highest spike in COVID yet, some governors refused to revive mask mandates, mayors have denied schools the option to temporarily operate online, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidelines to allow employers to force infected workers back on the job after five days without even a negative test.
As a result of this epic irrationality, the potentially good news of Omicron’s lower lethality has been squandered into a chilling display of disregard for the immunocompromised and an assault on our hospital systems that leaves all of us more vulnerable to every health emergency now and in the years to come.
As is often the case, our two political parties have used different emotional and cultural appeals to justify their support for the same disastrous policy of letting COVID rip through the population.
For two years, Republicans have railed against the injustice of pandemic restrictions without acknowledging the realities of the virus that makes them necessary. To return to the family metaphor, they have acted like children who think that rules meant to keep them out of danger are “unfair,” and they jump on any sign of parental inconsistency to claim that none of the rules make sense.
Their “all or nothing” arguments, more understandable in preteens than in senators, are that Anthony Fauci was wrong at first about masks so he must be wrong about everything; vaccines don’t prevent all infections so they don’t prevent any infections; 2020 lockdowns didn’t end COVID so they did nothing.
Democrats, by contrast, see themselves as the only adults in the room, caught between Republicans who deny the seriousness of COVID and leftists who refuse to acknowledge the reality that the virus is here to stay. In reality, much of what the left demanded is for Joe Biden to simply deliver on his own campaign pledges of adequate masking, testing and air ventilation in order to have schools and workplaces be open with a reasonable degree of safety.
While Republicans act like irresponsible children, Democrats strike the grating pose of parents who respond to a reasonable question from their kid about a friend whose parents have more lax rules with inanities like, “Oh and I suppose if Teddy Johnson jumped off the Empire State Building, then you would too!”
That was certainly the energy that White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki gave off last December when she sneered at a reporter who simply wanted to know why the Biden administration wouldn’t make COVID tests freely available like in many other countries.
The problem for Biden and other Democrats is that these measures, along with temporary measures paying workers to stay home during peak virus spikes, entail a sustained policy shift toward investing in schools, public health and employee working conditions — all of which are anathema to the donor classes of both parties who have been pushing for a return to “normal,” by which they mean U.S. capitalism’s minimal social safety net and business oversight.
So Democrats have turned to their own more sophisticated version of “all or nothing” logic: gaslighting the calls for basic public health measures coming from epidemiologists and the left as extreme demands for permanent lockdowns in a fruitless effort to fully eradicate COVID. When teachers (and many parents) asked for temporary remote learning to allow schools to adequately prepare for Omicron, for example, Democratic mayors in Chicago and elsewhere twisted this into a call for endless school closures — and then accused teachers of not caring how students would be impacted by an awful demand that they never made.
The turn that Democrats have made in recent months toward embracing the Republican policy of giving up the fight against COVID is catastrophic today, and ominous for the future. One in five health care workers has left the industry since the start of the pandemic — and the current crush on hospitals will likely worsen that trend, which could prove disastrous if a future variant that’s more lethal than Omicron emerges.
Then there’s our culture’s increasing desensitization to mass death. In January, there were around 2,000 COVID deaths a day, at the same time as our public discourse has been filled with conservatives and liberals alike complaining that we’re overly concerned about COVID.
The glimmer of hope is in the signs that many people have not followed this charge into illogic and cruelty, and have retained the critical facility for avoiding the false binary of surrendering to COVID because we can’t defeat it.
There is the national wave of student walkouts to demand better pandemic safety policies in school buildings, which has provided critical support for educators who have been demonized as somehow selfish for raising the same concerns. And there was the massive blowback that Psaki got after her dismissal of making testing more available, when the Biden administration was forced to implement the very distribution of tests that Psaki had mocked as unrealistic.
But we need much more. Public expectations need to be raised in the same way they were raised around COVID tests after Psaki’s gaffe. We need ventilation in public spaces, universal paid sick leave, releasing people from COVID-infested prisons and paying workers to stay home. We need a COVID justice framework that is identified with the left in the same way as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
When we raise these demands, socialists are the ones said to be engaging in “all or nothing” extremism. When we support Medicare for All instead of Obamacare, or demand that Immigration and Customs Enforcement be abolished, we are accused of making the perfect the enemy of the good and refusing to see a middle ground.
But there’s nothing extreme about wanting everyone to have the right health care and migration, or that the richest country in the world keep spending money to protect us from a plague. That the ruling class thinks these basic demands mean we want everything only shows how determined they are to give us nothing.