The Pandemic Amnesty No One Wants
Because they think only the other side needs it
So here’s the amazing, unsurprising thing about the response Emily Oster (whose Substack we have recommended from the beginning) has received for her recent Atlantic essay, “Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty”: both sides think it’s about giving up the right to make sure the other side gets their due castigation. Instead of thinking “yes, I’ve made mistakes and there are things I’ve said and done that I wish I could take back around COVID,” people think “I’ve been wronged and I’ll never let them forget it.”
More on this, but first let’s take a step back for context: throughout COVID, Oster was a heterodox voice on COVID, following the evidence as best as she could. At times, she was encouraging vaccination. At others, she was speaking out about the downsides of school closures. She was never fully embraced by a political side because of this, though she did enjoy a particular following among parents who were (and are) concerned about the effects of school closings and school masking policies on their kids, even if they disagreed about whether those policies were still ultimately wise or not.
Here’s how one critical article described her influence:
Oster’s influence on the discourse around COVID in schools is difficult to overstate. She has been quoted in hundreds of articles about school pandemic precautions and interviewed as a guest on dozens of news shows. Officials from both parties have used her work as justification for lifting public health measures. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis cited her study while announcing an executive order banning school mask mandates, while CDC Director Rochelle Walenksy referenced Oster’s research in anticipation of relaxing classroom social distancing guidelines. Oster also co-authored an influential school reopening guidance document that was released in early 2021.
A New York Times article of Oster characterizes her COVID work this way:
In July 2020, in the middle of the raging coronavirus pandemic, she wrote an opinion essay suggesting that schools and child care centers might be able to reopen safely, noting that working parents “can’t wait around forever.” In her popular parenting books, she tossed away longstanding medical guidelines, arguing that an occasional sushi roll and glass of wine are safe during pregnancy and that breastfeeding is overrated. More recently, she has cast doubt on whether students need to wear masks or remain physically distanced at school.
This steady stream of counterintuitive advice has made Dr. Oster a lodestar for a certain set of parents, generally college-educated, liberal and affluent. Many had first latched onto her data-driven child-rearing books. Her popularity grew during the pandemic, as she collected case counts of Covid-19 in schools and advanced her own strongly held views on the importance of returning to in-person learning.
Here’s what I’d say: while Oster, as she admits, got some things wrong, she could be doing victory laps, criticizing everyone who doubted the reality of learning loss, and jumping into the midterms fray as a mid-tier kingmaker. An Oster-endorsed list of candidates, which I don’t believe exists, would do quite well, I imagine.
Instead, she’s in The Atlantic today arguing that if we hold grudges against everyone who got something wrong, or everyone who critiqued us when we think we were right, we will be continuing the social damage COVID has done to our lives, our relationships and communities, and we’ll be contributing to a “doom loop” of reactionary impulses.
Interestingly to me, Oster does not seem to be focusing on elite politicians here, and she is very clear that she would exempt from this “amnesty” those who willfully, maliciously spread misinformation. Speaking for myself, if you feel you need to vote out Gov. Hochul or Gov. DeSantis over their COVID policies, a vote isn’t a grudge. Godspeed.
What I do think Oster is warning against is what I see in communities all over the country: the continued cultivation of bitter resentment, yes toward government officials, but most troubling, bitter resentment toward their own schools; the businesses down the street that didn’t do what they should have; the family members who enforced precautions or refused to respect them. Yes, the political expressions of this are troubling: people don’t just want Hochul out of office because she kept schools closed for longer than she should have, but because she “traumatized children out of obeisance to the teachers unions.” People died in Florida not because every precaution that should have been taken was not, but because DeSantis “doesn’t care about human life.”
These are the terms of today’s “policy debates.” People don’t deserve to be voted out because their leadership fell short, or they failed to make the right decision. They deserve to be voted out because they’re evil! Blood is on their hands!
To return to my earlier point, what is incredible to me is the narrative enclosure is so profound that when people see even the headline of Oster’s article, they can only think it’s about others’ guilt, and the grace others need (but don’t deserve!). There’s a part of me that doesn’t understand how this is possible. Haven’t you had a conversation with a mother whose child was thriving, but is now detached and falling behind in school? Haven’t you had a conversation with someone vulnerable to serious health risks because of COVID, but found the politicized disregard for COVID precautions to make it nearly impossible to go to the grocery store or post office? Haven’t you had a conversation with someone who attended a funeral for a loved one who died from COVID, and the family didn’t feel they got the care that they needed? Haven’t you had a conversation with someone who couldn’t attend a funeral for a loved one because of COVID mandates that were lifted a month later? If you’ve emerged from the last two years thinking there was some painless, obvious course of action to take, I don’t think you really paid attention. I think we’ve become eager to sympathize with certain kinds of pain that align with our politics, and almost willfully blind to others that go against our politics. Then, when we build our political identity around how responsive we are to pain, the pain we see, we think “what kind of monsters must the people who disagree with me be to not care about all of this pain?”
Emily Oster knows the facts about learning loss. This month alone has provided enough headlines to provoke her into a marathon of self-congratulation. She could rationalize to herself that it’s her right to destroy all who opposed her as a public service. She could build quite an empire that way. But Oster seems to understand that this empire-building around a politics of contempt is exactly what will it make it more difficult for us to hear one another when the next crisis comes. It will prevent us from working together to develop better approaches to education and schooling should another crisis occur that forces us to cease in-person education (or some other unforeseen adjustment that we could and should prepare for). It will prevent us from figuring out how to ensure low-wage workers don’t bear the brunt of our precautions. It will prevent us from developing new systems and approaches to public health communications and protocols that are trusted and deserve trust.
Our scorched earth politics works, in some ways. It can build a following. It can turn us away from one another, united only by our suspicion of “the other side.” But this will lead us to an increasingly desolate place, until we find ourselves in another crisis, in need of people willing to question the status quo, only to find everything’s still burning from the fire we set and nurtured. And we can only shout at the wind.
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