Lockdown Logic

We are well over two years into a changing mix of masks, mandates, lockdowns, rules, restrictions, and “two weeks to slow the spread.” The pandemic seems to be receding in the rear view mirror but our home county recently imposed yet another mask mandate, so I guess it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. History will show how much our government approaches to the coronavirus accomplished, and it will also show how much damage they imposed on our children, physical health, mental health, schools, and economy. It takes time to figure out which data to collect, and it takes time to analyze and understand the data.

While we wait for the truth to come into focus, it seems useful to reflect on what may have motivated officials at local, state, and national levels to take the approaches they did. Why? So we can learn and hopefully do better next time. We all experienced their attempts at managing the coronavirus, but what factors might have come into play in motivating their decisions, or lack thereof? Motives underlie and influence actions, so motives are part of trying to understand the whole picture. In no particular order, here are some thoughts:

Genuine concern for the health of citizens. We live in a cynical age, and it is all too easy to doubt that an elected or appointed official, who knows very few of us on a personal level, would have our best interests at heart. Politics, skepticism, and cynicism aside, many of our elected officials take their service and the needs of the public seriously. Yes, I hear politicians speaking of their amazing leadership more than they speak of their service, but some of them do remember that they work for us. Although they may not know what to do about any and every problem that arises, we would like to believe that they want the best for us as individuals, families, and communities. Hopefully, there are more of these people in public service than it often seems.

Fear of risk. People are often not very good at understanding and analyzing known risks (e.g., the odds of dying in a plane crash), much less new risks (e.g., the odds of dying from an unknown virus). People in our government are not much different from the rest of us when it comes to risks, but they have the additional pressure of fearing the second-guessing, the “I told you so,” and the accusations of failure from their critics and opponents. This leads to a level of unspoken but pervasive risk avoidance that can be counterproductive. Knowledge and wisdom can help mitigate fears of risk, but knowledge takes time to acquire, and wisdom takes even longer. In a world driven by political narratives and impatient news cycles, it takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to take a reasoned approach and stick with it in the face of fearmongering. Hopefully, our leaders know enough to ask for help from multiple sources that reflect all dimensions of the problem.

Love of power. Power is addictive, and we can see its effects as various governors and health officials try to hang on to powers granted or claimed under declarations of emergency. How long does it take before an emergency decays into a crisis and then into a chronic (i.e., long term) problem? In a genuine emergency, like a surprise attack, a hurricane or tornado, or a large, destructive earthquake, emergency powers to respond make sense. But as the crisis drags on and on, at some point it is no longer an emergency but something that needs deliberative attention. A longer term, deliberative approach can consider all dimensions of the problem, implications of proposed solutions, and input from the public. Many states limit declarations of emergency with a deadline of 30, 60, or even 90 days, beyond which the declaration expires. Sadly, California does not have such a limit for things like a health emergency, and some of our officials seem to enjoy the power too much to let go.

Peer pressure. An unremarked aspect of the past two years of emergency management has been how often counties have imitated each other’s response, regardless of whether their circumstances are similar. The same behavior occurred between states, with some applauded and others villainized, according to whether they fell into line with what other states were doing. Such peer pressure effects seemed to trump variabilities in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, and certainly did not wait for clean data. Perhaps other factors were at work. If they were working from a defensible consensus, then better transparency would have explained the approach. However, peer pressure between governors and between health officials (egged on by opinion pieces pretending to be journalism) seems to have played a role, perhaps too much of a role, in how they tried to manage the public as a way to manage the pandemic.

Other considerations? Sadly, many of our officials (and talking heads on the news) hide behind what they claim is science rather than embracing actual science. Actual science includes admitting unknowns, asking questions, and balancing old information against new information rather than squelching information and questions that do not fit the narrative. Many of our officials and their news media allies practice science by bluster, perhaps not realizing that including all the information, including competing theories, would actually improve their credibility and, with time, their effectiveness.

So what’s the point? Our government recently said that they are preparing for the next pandemic. If so, then maybe it would be nice to include lessons learned from this past one. And maybe we need to take their performance into account when we cast our votes in November.

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