The damage to the economy and mental health from closures and restrictions outweighs the threat of the disease itself, skeptics have insisted. Well, maybe in certain cases, like elementary school closures — but in general a disease that has killed at least 500,000 Americans more than justified a robust attempt to stop its spread. However: Once the old and vulnerable are genuinely protected, the death toll drops, and vaccines are generally available, the toll that emergency measures take on just about everyone — business owners, college kids, churches, parents, school-age children, the lonely and the old — really will become worse than whatever coronavirus threat remains.
But because some threat will probably endure — perhaps through the winter, perhaps indefinitely — there may be pressure on anxious governments to keep the emergency measures in place or lift them ver-r-r-r-y slowly, and similar pressure on public health officials to overstate the continuing risks.
For instance, the fact that a vaccine might not be approved for kids until 2022 could become a reason for schools to extend virtual learning for yet another semester — even though teachers can be vaccinated and the coronavirus does not appear to be more dangerous for children than the flu.
Or again, the fear that a deadlier or vaccine-evading variant might come along could become a reason to maintain restrictions on restaurants, church services or private gatherings through the fall or winter — even though the possibility of a new variant could easily be with us every year, for decades, and we might as well start adapting now.
Or the fear of long-haul, chronic-seeming Covid — which is a genuinely frightening part of this disease — could be cited as a reason restrictions need to remain in place until the virus is entirely eradicated. But other illnesses can have chronic consequences, too, and yet life continues around them: We don’t close schools for the Epstein-Barr virus, despite its link to chronic fatigue syndrome, or expect New England state parks to shut down all spring and summer because of the risk that Lyme disease turns chronic.
To be clear, I can imagine scenarios for 2021’s fall or winter involving a particularly deadly variant or one that’s more dangerous to kids, where reimposing emergency measures might be necessary. And if we end up maintaining mask mandates a little longer than needed, and there’s more mask-wearing in the winter months and on public transportation going forward, then that’s hardly the greatest burden in the world.
But the danger of the overcautious, wait-for-Christmas public rhetoric from Biden and Fauci is that it provides cover and encouragement for fearful officials to extend the whole suite of emergency measures for many unnecessary months.