To judge from White House strategic communications official Ben Wakana, the Biden administration has had it up to here with itself.
Over the weekend, Wakana tore into reporting from the Washington Post and the New York Times for declining to properly contextualize the relative risk assumed by fully vaccinated Americans who chose to leave their houses. He attacked the “irresponsible” failure to note that the rate of COVID-19 transmission to and from vaccinated individuals is “VERY SMALL.” But these venues did little more than disseminate the data cited by the administration’s own public health apparatus to justify the resumption of indoor mask mandates.
It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the executive branch has all but acknowledged it is hostage to rogues inside the administration. And yet, anyone in Wakana’s position would be frustrated by a level of risk intolerance that has led the Centers for Disease Control, among others, to leverage a 0.06 percent chance of hospitalization and 0.01 percent risk of death to threaten resumed restrictions on the social and economic life of all Americans.
In more candid moments, Biden officials admit that it isn’t any circulating strain of COVID-19 that keeps them up at night. Rather, the urgent threat is a hypothetically more dangerous virus that could emerge amid unchecked transmission. For some in the bureaucracy, that’s a level of risk that is simply unacceptable. They would be better positioned to argue their case if elite confusion over the public’s general risk tolerance wasn’t a permanent feature of the governing overclass’s worldview. This tendency long predates the pandemic.
In early 2019, National Public Radio reporters were dumbfounded over the fact that parents continued to let their children play football. Despite the “years of publicity about how dangerous football can be,” NPR observed, enrollment in the sport at the high-school level had declined only slightly. Students, they marveled, “are all aware of the risks of playing football, but play anyway.” This could only be explained by pernicious socioeconomic factors—if these children had other ways to advance up the socioeconomic ladder, the sport would surely wither on the vine. As one expert put it, “America’s dual commitments to football and racial oppression” have produced a “gladiatorial dichotomy” in which the wealthy spectate as those of modest means bleed for their enjoyment. It cannot be that the players enjoy the sport and have weighed the risks of playing the game against its associated rewards. These poor souls must have been guided into the game, so it stands to reason that they can be guided out of it.
The same tone of wide-eyed wonderment accompanies accounts of the parents who continue to share “mother-to-mother” breast milk while nursing infants. A full 50 percent of 650 anonymous respondents to a Facebook survey on the subject didn’t seem to have any concern about the safety of this ancient childrearing practice. Clearly, Technology Networks’ report on the subject insists, these mothers had not been informed of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ admonition to avoid sharing breastmilk that could include “medications, alcohol, illegal drugs or other contaminants.” And if you’re blindly sharing breastmilk with a random sample of nursing mothers, that could be a risk—albeit one that is substantially reduced through the exercise of basic common sense.
The list goes on: using a tanning bed, getting pregnant after the age of 35, and even swimming in a chlorinated pool (As the Times reported, “although it can be extremely effective in killing germs, it doesn’t kill every germ right away”). These activities court a level of risk that alarms the public health apparatus. So, too, do the practices of eating raw shellfish or cookie dough; the only way to lead a truly salubrious life is to abstain entirely from these reckless practices. But by the CDC’s definition, a salubrious life isn’t necessarily a life worth living.
Society’s risk-takers routinely confound the arbiters of our national discourse, whose level of risk-intolerance borders on the pathological. Studying to become a professional crane operator or signing up to fight wildfires in California; using a cell phone in the car; working the third shift for any reason; all these vocations and more contribute to increased personal jeopardy. But the world we inhabit would be measurably worse without these daredevils. We are all better off because of the calculations they’ve made.
In the end, we may come to regard as a profound mistake the public health bureaucracy’s decision to manage the pandemic with the same dismissible excess of prudence they’ve applied to so many other activities. “Reassuring the majority of vaccinated Americans they don’t need to freak out could backfire if it causes those who are at risk to let down their guard,” Axios reported on Monday. To state this premise more bluntly, it could be bad public policy to be honest with the vaccinated lest the unvaccinated misinterpret the message. The level of condescension on display here is matched only by the wild impertinence.
By and large, the public is not waiting for the National Institutes of Health to give the go-ahead before diving into a half-dozen oysters, getting a base tan, or taking an apprenticeship before becoming a construction engineer. The CDC’s excesses of caution have already rendered it an easily dismissed curiosity in the minds of most Americans. It would be a tragedy if that condition extended to its guidance surrounding the ongoing pandemic.
At a time when trust in public officials is needed most, bureaucratic inertia is squandering that trust. Perhaps the Biden administration should do what it can to put an end to the public health bureaucracy’s self-destructive habits. For its own good, of course.