Laws, observed the sixth-century BC Scythian philosopher Anacharsis, are like cobwebs: strong enough to hold the weak but too weak to resist the strong. In a sobering affirmation of this maxim, recent weeks have seen America’s nationwide quarantine disintegrate. The moment of societal cohesion fostered by the Covid-19 pandemic disappeared under a surge of anger at the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. American policymakers’ response to thousands protesting in close proximity, disdaining the social-distancing guidelines that have dominated American life since mid-March, shows that they live in a cargo cult of public health: going through the motions, but without conviction or understanding.
It has long been the case that public-health authorities may, in the event of an emergency, temporarily suspend the exercise of certain civil liberties, primarily the freedom of assembly. Citizens may expect that the general welfare in such situations dictates restraints such as lockdowns and bans on gatherings—methods that public health often euphemizes as “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” though evidence for the efficacy of such interventions is nowhere near what a drug must show for regulatory approval. At its heart, the maintenance of non-pharmaceutical interventions is a form of Sir Robert Peel’s “policing by consent,” in that it relies greatly on the population’s cooperation, even if it can, technically and legally, be enforced coercively. And nothing is more crucial to popular cooperation with such measures—inconvenient at best, economically damaging at worst—than trust and integrity.
It is this trust and integrity that many politicians, some of whom roundly condemned groups of a few dozen people gathering for anti-lockdown protests, have now forfeited by treating much larger protests in the wake of Floyd’s death with permissiveness and encouragement. It goes without saying that what happened to George Floyd is deplorable, and opposition to injustice is laudable; yet this cause does not attenuate the risks posed by thousands of people protesting vigorously in a crowd. To a pathogen, one crowd is very much like any other, no matter how righteous the cause or how justified the protest. If a handful of people protesting lockdowns were a cause for concern, the much larger protests sweeping America—with exponentially more potential vectors of transmission—should have been met with the offer of safer options for making one’s voice heard. African-Americans have already suffered disproportionately from Covid-19; failing to protect them by implicitly encouraging large public gatherings is a display of cynical disregard for black lives.
Americans are still willing to put a temporary hold on their exercise of certain rights for the common good. But many wonder whether political decision-makers can still be expected to hold up their side of the bargain and treat everyone fairly and equally. Many now regard public health as a justification for restrictions with skepticism. Indeed, it appears that the protests have not led to the spike in cases that one would have expected based on the conventional wisdom driving the lockdowns—making it rather unreasonable to prevent families from burying their dead, neighborhoods from celebrating Memorial Day, or children from attending school, when mass gatherings of thousands are not merely tolerated but often supported and endorsed by politicians, without any attempts made to provide guidance or tools for harm reduction.
It’s also worrying that the public-health rationale might have lost its credibility because Covid-19 turned out not to be the “pandemic to end all pandemics” that it once plausibly appeared to be. To those of us who act as society’s lookouts for emerging pandemic risks on the horizon, such dangers loom in abundance: an influenza pandemic can be reliably expected to strike within the next seven to ten years, while rapid habitat loss and deforestation make global outbreaks of bat-borne viruses, such as Ebola and Nipah, ever more likely. Sentiment is growing that the lockdowns were not only excessive but also forged into tools of cheap point-scoring by politicians, rather than tools of necessity administered impartially by public-health experts. This loss of trust may exact a steep cost in lives when the next pandemic emerges. With no shortage of likely challenges in the years ahead, public health must restore its reputation—anchored firmly in fairness and disinterested pursuit of the common good—before it’s too late.
Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images