Opinion: If this is the end, what lessons can we learn from the pandemic?
All the arguments against masks and vaccines didn’t amount to much, except that people don’t want to follow rules.
A raucous legislative hearing on the final week of the regular session felt like the last-gasp battle in a COVID-19 war that has pitted science against politics and popular, but false, notions about freedom and liberty.
It came almost two years from the day life changed in the United States. March 11, 2020, was the day Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive, setting in motion what amounted to a nationwide quarantine.
It has, in many ways, been an exhausting two years.
And so, here we are, in what seems like the final death throes of a pandemic, desperately hanging on to ground won in battle as the cause slips away.
Highway Patrol officers had to drag some people out of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee meeting last week because they wouldn’t conform to the rules that allow laws to be debated and voted on with civility and order.
At issue was a bill that would have set rules about whether employers could require employees to be vaccinated — an issue rapidly becoming as relevant as last year’s baseball scores.
That legislative encounter came on a week when the state’s seven-day average of new cases fell to 367.3, down from nearly 11,000 when the legislative session began in January. It came only days after the governor announced that the virus is entering an endemic stage, and on a week when many states were loosening mask mandates. Even California, Oregon and Washington are ending school mandates, and a new AP/NORC poll found that only 24% of Americans remain either somewhat or extremely worried about infection.
Meanwhile, a convoy of truckers is surrounding Washington, D.C., in a confusing attempt to protest COVID-19 restrictions that are rapidly disappearing from coast to coast.
In my mind, I keep seeing a young Mathew Broderick, in the final, post-credits scene of “Ferris Bueller’s Day” off, staring in bewilderment into the camera and saying, “You’re still here? It’s over. Go home.”
Only a fool would definitively pronounce the end to a pandemic when the virus retains the ability to mutate and spread, but it’s clear that public officials, and the public itself, have had enough. The outbreak of war in Europe deserves our full attention now. Even the CDC says most people can drop their masks.
Arguments over whether masks and vaccines are attempts to usurp liberty, or whether limits on gatherings represent the camel’s nose in the tent of totalitarianism are fading like the fog on your glasses.
They never really did amount to much. As James M. Beck wrote for the American Bar Association last year, citing legal precedents, “Mandatory vaccination is 100 percent constitutional and has been for over a century.” Nothing in the Constitution keeps governments from protecting people from life-threatening pandemics, and nothing gives individuals the right to infect others through their own reckless behavior.
As Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan said in a 1905 ruling, “Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own (liberty), whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”
Beck noted that this decision, in a case involving someone who refused to be vaccinated against smallpox, led to the eradication of smallpox.
As of last Thursday, 63.3% of eligible Utahs were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with 71.2% having received at least one dose, according to Ourworldindata.org. Despite all the loud protests by the few who refused to protect themselves, the state may have reached a point where the virus no longer can get a foothold — with emphasis on the word “may.”
Two years ago, I wrote a column with the naive headline, “Will Americans follow rules in a pandemic?” I had just come from a meeting with the leaders of Salt Lake International Airport, who were describing what they were doing to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic.
Back then, I cited a 2007 opinion poll by Trust for America’s Health that found nearly 9 in 10 Americans saying they would stay home and isolate themselves in the event of a pandemic, should the government request it.
Sounds quaint today, doesn’t it?
Answering questions about a hypothetical is one thing. Actually encountering a pandemic is quite another. Many people voluntarily stayed home when state governments asked them to at the beginning, but economic pressures and impatient people soon forced many states to reopen, despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
From then on, the struggle was on. Today, the death toll from COVID-19 in the United States is approaching 1 million, according to worldometers.info. The struggles between safety and the economy were inevitable and understandable. But the false fights over liberty and commonsense precautions were disappointing and disturbing, to say the least.
If this is the end, if that raucous legislative committee meeting last week — over a bill that eventually did not pass — was the final scene in a poorly acted tragedy, it’s hard to draw any concrete lessons to hand down to future generations.
Except one, maybe: Don’t expect people to follow any rules.