"Amnesty" is not the Solution to Disastrous Policy Decisions
And "gloating" is not the motivation for calling them out
“I’m so sorry you got hurt. How could I have known that would hurt you?”
“I appreciate your apology, but it will be hard to stay friends knowing you’re capable of something like that.”
“How could I have known hitting you with a bat could hurt you?”
“Well, for starters, because physics, physiology, and common sense – Plus, I screamed, ‘Don’t hit me, that’s going to hurt!’ right before you did it and, ‘Ouch!’ right after.”
“Well, I’ve never read a study that concludes that hitting people with baseball bats hurts them. Also, everyone said bat-hitting was necessary to keep us all safe and that anyone who refuses to hit their friends with bats is selfish.”
“And you believe that? That’s crazy!”
“Well, obviously, I don’t anymore. Duh.”
“But why did you believe it then?”
“Because I didn’t know.”
“So, are you going to hit me again?”
“Of course not… unless they say it will keep everyone safe.”
That about sums up the conversation for me.
I write today in response to Emily Oster’s most recent Atlantic article entitled, “Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty: We need to forgive one another for what we did and said when we were in the dark about COVID.”
The piece starts with a lively anecdote by Emily in which her family is hiking outdoors in cloth masks, and her proceeds to scream at another small child for getting too close to him.
“These precautions were totally misguided,” she said, “But the thing is: We didn’t know.”
Two things right off the bat:
They weren’t ‘precautions’ because the Precautionary Principle requires us to carefully weigh the costs of implementing any ‘precaution’ and default to the status quo in the face of uncertainty. We did the opposite.
And, of course, we absolutely knew.
That’s just the first paragraph in Emily’s pseudo-conciliatory piece, which is littered with precisely the same kind of gaslighting, self-interested double-speak that landed us here.
I feel compelled to break it down because clearly, this is a conversation that we must have. Emily implies that the people who were right all along are holding up the healing by not offering the perpetrators forgiveness.
She fails to mention that no one who inflicted the harm has bothered to make amends and ask for it.
(And demands like “But I didn’t know, so you should forgive me!” do not count.)
Uncertainty, my ass
“Given the amount of uncertainty, almost every position was taken on every topic.”
We were never facing some grabbag of mysterious and completely disorienting situations or unknowable outcomes, as the Osters of the world like to claim. The default positions were clear and fully aligned with this list of things we knew by or before March 2020:
COVID has a clear risk-stratification skewing dramatically toward the elderly
COVID is not nearly as deadly as once feared
Panic, stigmatization, mandates, and politicization are anathema to public health
We have immune systems, and natural immunity exists
Missing school hurts kids, especially disadvantaged ones
Isolation of anyone is cruel and harmful
The media profits off fear-mongering
Health is not just about disease avoidance
Masks don’t work + faces are important
Forcing people to die alone is inhumane
Lockdowns are human rights violations
Informed consent is essential
Bodily autonomy is paramount
Shutting down manufacturing causes supply chain disruptions
Supply chain disruptions threaten economic stability
Science doesn’t advance by “following”
Panicked people don’t make rational decisions
Acknowledging the above truths would’ve been enough to keep probably 90% of the harm from occurring. But not only were they ignored, they were censored and countered — despite brave, reasonable people screaming them from the rooftops. Perhaps Emily could imagine our surprise at hearing her now say that she “didn’t know.”
“In the face of so much uncertainty, getting something right had a hefty element of luck. And similarly, getting something wrong wasn’t a moral failing.”
Luck was not a factor. Just a dash of rational thought was sufficient for most to arrive at the above conclusions, and the lion’s share of the wrongs perpetrated were absolutely moral failings, not least of all because one could not promote the prevailing narrative without obfuscating the truth.
A team led by Dr. Tom Inglesby, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and including D.A. Henderson, the man credited with eradicating smallpox, wrote the following in 2006:
“Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted. Strong political and public health leadership to provide reassurance and to ensure that needed medical care services are provided are critical elements. If either is seen to be less than optimal, a manageable epidemic could move toward catastrophe.”
For whatever reason — to whatever end — the powers that be implemented policies that ran counter to our existing knowledge base regarding public, mental, social, developmental, and immunological health, as well as virology, epidemiology, and pandemic management.
We absolutely knew it. With certainty.
Any conversation about forgiveness cannot move forward until there’s agreement on this point.
Emily’s diagnosis of the problem is:
The people who got it right, for whatever reason, may want to gloat … Treating pandemic choices as a scorecard on which some people wracked up more points than others is preventing us from moving forward.”
That’s some next level victim-blaming and gaslighting. The backlash to this article was not a result of some trivial scorekeeping fixation. Those policies hurt people. They devastated communities and families. They robbed adults of their livelihoods and children of their childhoods. They maimed. They assaulted. They killed.
And the people they laid waste to were forced to die alone.
It’s misleading to even talk about “pandemic choices” because, while Emily and her ilk had a choice of whether to support the authoritarian overreach that ran counter to the ethical tenets of public health, in most cases, the public didn’t have any choices at all (at least not legal ones). Masks were mandated. Testing was mandated. Vaccines were mandated. Travel was prohibited. These “choices” were imposed upon people — by people like Emily, who made the self-interested choice to support them.
And the worst part is that those “experts” absolutely knew better.
And we’re not going to allow people to claim they didn’t.
Not because of “points” but because we don’t want it to happen again.
The reduction of our resistance to” scorecards” and “gloating” is as absurd and unfounded as it is offensive.
We’ve been fighting for our lives and livelihoods for three years, begging influential people to admit what was patently obvious — and 99% opted out.
So, no, Emily, it is not “gloating” that holds us back from offering you the forgiveness you haven’t asked for … it’s the persistence of the lies that got us here and the unwillingness of people like you to admit them.
If they really wanted forgiveness …
You can’t blame “fog of war” when you walk around with a fog machine mounted to your back. Likewise, “We were in the dark!” loses plausibility when you block everyone’s access to the light switch.
The reason I refuse to accept calls for “amnesty” is not because I am vengeful.
It’s because granting “amnesty” leaves the people who have already been crushed by the weight of these decisions vulnerable still.
If they really wanted forgiveness, we’d see them putting effort into the following:
Acknowledgment – We won’t get anywhere until the people who directed these catastrophic errors acknowledge their harm. This isn’t about “being right” – it’s a matter of human decency. Admitting a mistake - especially one that hurt so many damn people - goes a long way toward healing. As long as the “experts” refuse to admit their errors, the harm will continue to compound.
Accounting – We need to know which decisions were made at which levels and by whom. I cannot emphasize enough how crucial this is to moving forward. We cannot solve problems if we don’t know who or what caused them. And it should be understood that anyone who resists this process does not have problem-solving as their primary motivation.
Accountability – The people who made those decisions need to be held accountable. Leadership is not just about the right to make decisions – it’s about taking responsibility for those decisions. If an elderly person died alone at your direction, you are disqualified. If children were denied schooling, safeguards, and social interactions on your watch, you failed your auditon. Those who caused this disaster have no business leading the recovery efforts. The judgment of these ‘leaders’ has been tested and found lacking.
New Leadership/Representatives – The people who orchestrated and carried out these policies should be removed and replaced, ideally with people who, throughout the hysteria, kept a cool head and proposed viable solutions. Without new leadership, we can expect the same results next time.
Safeguards – We need policies that dismantle the systems that allowed for such egregious abuses of power. Endless emergency declarations and science funding mechanisms that hold researchers’ careers hostage to a prescribed narrative, for example, both need to be eliminated.
Commitment – The clean-up required here is immense and may take generations to repair. We must commit to checking out every second- and third-order effect, and documenting and correcting it to get back on track.
Grief is not processed on demand
Emily concluded with:
we need to learn from our mistakes and let them go.”
That’s not going to happen — at least not until the people who made the mistakes are open to learning. And the learning process requires humility, honesty, and patience. Neither Enily nor anyone else gets to tell the people they harmed that it’s time to get over it. The losses were incalculableand no one is owed forgiveness. It's also important to acknowledge that pretending like harm was inflicted equally by both sides is gaslighting.
Trust in public health, government, and institutions has been gutted – quite justifiably. As they currently function, they are devoid of integrity.
Our children won’t fully heal without the reassurance that their world and the adults they depend on are stable and no longer overcome by hysteria or self-interest.
If the Emilys of the world really want society to recover from the last two going on three nightmarish years, they are going to have to dig a little deeper. Pleas for forgiveness ring hollow when there’s no acknowledgment of error. “But we didn’t know!” is just more of the same self-interested trope we’ve been spoon-fed for years.
Because we did know.
And we have receipts.
And we’re going to keep showing them for as long as it takes to begin the actual recovery.
Because while Emily may want forgiveness, what we want is for this to never, ever happen again.