It is time to set aside our fear of COVID and remember what life is for.
With the ongoing rollout of the vaccines in the fight against COVID-19, the time is ripe to foster a public conversation about how to return to a normal social life. Unfortunately, this conversation will be increasingly difficult.
Actions that seek to loosen restrictions are asserted to be “reckless.” Some claim that the recent decisions by governors to lift restrictive mitigation measures only set states back further. Under this narrative, the virus is still not yet under control. In practice, however, very little will change with such lifting of restrictions, because fear remains the predominant narrative surrounding COVID-19.
This crippling fear has only been further solidified through the continued use of highly restrictive non-pharmaceutical interventions. Whether lockdowns, school closures, stay-at-home orders, or reduced capacities for businesses, there is little evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of such measures in stopping the spread of the virus. While such practices are intelligible early in a pandemic, the continuation of such measures, with no visible end in sight, can no longer be considered legitimate options.
The deeper question here is whether a truthful account of human flourishing can merely be reduced to safety. The political philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford puts this issue in a clearer light: “The safer we become, the more intolerable any remaining risk appears.” What is at stake is not whether we should do what is reasonably possible to protect those who are most vulnerable; prudential judgment will enable differences in behavior and caution based on the risk of various populations. But the more we cling to safetyism, the more certain it is that we will prevent ourselves from returning to the normal functioning of our common lives.
Now that we have passed the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must consider how it is that we can begin to restore the normal social functioning of our communities. The question is not only how we do this, but also what evidence we can rely upon to help us move towards this goal.
The first important body of evidence we should turn to is the statistically significant decline in positive cases and hospitalizations for COVID. Dr. Marty Makary of the John Hopkins School of Medicine has recently argued in the Wall Street Journal that infections have fallen roughly 77 percent since early January. This fact is the key to our public health policy going forward, because the decline in cases and hospitalizations cannot be entirely explained by the rollout of the vaccines, or even the wearing of masks (compare daily positive cases with the percentage of people wearing masks). The more plausible explanation, which has been well-documented in various seroprevalence studies, is that the virus has already infected a larger percentage of the population than regular testing has been able to capture.
We should also highlight the increasing overall rate of vaccine distribution. With just over 15 percent of the U.S. population vaccinated, combined with likely over half the population already having been infected, herd immunity for this infectious disease seems within reach.
The studies on COVID antibodies have to be a fundamental part of any public health conversation regarding the restoration of normal social life. We can hypothesize from what is known about the strength of antibodies from previous data on viruses. The natural immunity from other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS, which are similar to COVID-19 (caused by the virus SARS-COV-2), suggest that the antibodies last about one to three years. While there is still a level of uncertainty regarding the strength of the antibodies, there is growing evidence suggesting that the antibodies for COVID are likely to be long-lasting. According to Dr. Makary, even the neutralizing antibodies from the 1918 Spanish flu were shown to still be active 90 years later.
In light of these findings, individuals with antibodies to the virus ought to be advised to recover a normal life. Those who have the antibodies for COVID should be told that they no longer need to wear a mask, nor do they need to continue practicing social distance measures.
In the broader conversation about COVID, we appear to have lost the capacity to identify the end game. We should recall that all restrictions, mitigations and pharmaceutical interventions are for the purpose of enabling the normal social life of our communities to return. Thus, we must be able to create and foster ecosystems that are no longer based upon fear and an erroneous cost-benefit analysis. By living in conditions of universal masking and on-going restrictions, citizens become afraid. And without a defined end game on the horizon, this fear generates an excessive anxiety.
The decline of cases and hospitalizations, along with the increase of vaccine distribution, should be a sign for us that things are turning the corner. We should be ready, and willing, to reject the debilitating worldview of “ZeroCovid” as we return to living a normal and full life, for what is at stake in this is nothing other than the truth of our own flourishing.
Brian Jones is a Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.