The battle against Covid-19 is entering a new phase, and the choice for society is whether to live with the virus or to live for it. This new phase has been marked by four developments: Many states have weathered post-shutdown outbreaks and case counts are falling; the percentage of Americans saying the pandemic is worsening peaked in July and is trending down, according to Gallup polling; the culture wars over lockdowns and distancing mandates are cooling; and inexpensive rapid testing and a vaccine will soon be available widely. These developments create an atmosphere of possibility—and an opportunity to pivot away from the fear-fueled policy-making that has characterized the pandemic.
Policies forged in fear and panic have wrought tremendous damage in exchange for benefits that were attainable at a much lower cost. Over the past six months, we have managed to sow vicious conflict over health mandates among people who would otherwise be cordial; erode age-old social customs, like visible smiles and human touch, which are critical to social cohesion and personal well-being; and condemn millions of Americans to financial instability, depression and even domestic violence.
The collective goal of this new phase should be to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. When faced in March with the choice between imposing limited shutdowns to buy hospitals time and increase capacity, and enormous, indefinite shutdowns that ignored societal and economic costs, most political leaders chose the latter. When faced in May and June with the choice between embracing policies that balanced Covid-19 prevention with the activities that give life meaning and policies that sowed distrust and stirred fierce passions over civil liberties, most political leaders chose the latter. We have the opportunity to choose differently this time.
Some signs point toward institutions shifting away from fear-fueled decision making.
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