In April 2020, with nothing else to do, my family took an enormous number of hikes. We all wore cloth masks that I had made myself. We had a family hand signal, which the person in the front would use if someone was approaching on the trail and we needed to put on our masks.Â Once, when another child got too close to my then-4-year-old son on a bridge, he yelled at her â€œSOCIAL DISTANCING!â€
These precautions were totally misguided. In April 2020, no one got the coronavirus from passing someone else hiking. Outdoor transmission was vanishingly rare. Our cloth masks made out of old bandanas wouldnâ€™t have done anything, anyway. But the thing is:Â We didnâ€™t know.
I have been reflecting on this lack of knowledge thanks to a class Iâ€™m co-teaching at Brown University on COVID. Weâ€™ve spent several lectures reliving the first year of the pandemic, discussing the many important choices we had to make under conditions of tremendous uncertainty.
Some of these choices turned out better than others. To take an example close to my own work, there is an emerging (if not universal) consensus that schools in the U.S. were closed for too long: The health risks of in-school spread were relatively low, whereas the costs to studentsâ€™ well-being and educational progress were high. The latest figures on learning loss areÂ alarming.Â But in spring and summer 2020, we had only glimmers of information. Reasonable peopleâ€”people who cared about children and teachersâ€”advocated on both sides of the reopening debate.
Another example: When the vaccines came out, we lacked definitive data on the relative efficacies of the Johnson & Johnson shot versus the mRNA options from Pfizer and Moderna. The mRNA vaccines haveÂ won out. But at the time, many people in public health were either neutral or expressed a J&J preference. This misstep wasnâ€™t nefarious. It was the result of uncertainty.
ObviouslyÂ someÂ people intended to mislead and made wildly irresponsible claims. Remember when the public-health community had to spend a lot of time and resources urging Americans not to inject themselves with bleach? That was bad. Misinformation was, and remains, a huge problem. But most errors were made by people who were working in earnest for the good of society.
Given the amount of uncertainty, almost every position was taken on every topic. And on every topic, someone was eventually proved right, and someone else was proved wrong. In some instances, the right people were right for the wrong reasons. In other instances, they had a prescient understanding of the available information.
The people who got it right, for whatever reason, may want to gloat. Those who got it wrong, for whatever reason, may feel defensive and retrench into a position that doesnâ€™t accord with the facts. All of this gloating and defensiveness continues to gobble up a lot of social energy and to drive the culture wars, especially on the internet. These discussions are heated, unpleasant and, ultimately, unproductive. In the face of so much uncertainty, getting something right had a hefty element of luck. And, similarly, getting something wrong wasnâ€™t a moral failing. Treating pandemic choices as a scorecard on which some people racked up more points than others is preventing us from moving forward.
We have to put these fights aside and declare a pandemic amnesty. We can leave out the willful purveyors of actual misinformation while forgiving the hard calls that people had no choice but to make with imperfect knowledge.
See FULL STORY at The Atlantic.