For people who suffer from prolonged symptoms associated with a Covid infection, so-called “long Covid,” the Biden administration knows that “it can feel like the world is moving on, while leaving them behind.” That was the verdict rendered in a statement provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. “We see you, we hear you, and we are taking action to help.” To hear the avatar of the nation’s public health apparatus tell it, moving on from “long Covid” is not an option. Indeed, “long Covid” may justify dragging everyone back.

“What is your metric for success?” Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith recently asked Dr. Anthony Fauci. “How do you analyze the numbers and say this is heading in the right direction?”

In responding, Fauci twice said that placing a “heavy emphasis” on “death and severe disease” is the most practical way to gauge the level of menace Covid represents. “However, there’s one wild card in there,” he added. “That is that infection—even mild to moderate infection—can lead to a syndrome called ‘long covid’ in a certain percentage of people. So, getting [an] infection for a certain proportion of people—we don’t know whether that’s 5 percent, 10 percent, some studies show as high as 20 percent—who have a residual of impairment of normal function that can last for months if not longer.” It, therefore, remains a public health imperative “to get such a control over this that even the infection rate is very low.”

While the doctor did not expressly advocate restoring or preserving Covid-related mitigation measures as a response to “long Covid,” it’s hard to avoid interpreting his comments in any other way. As a rationale for extraordinary public-sector interventions into American private life, the existence of “long Covid” is entirely unsatisfying. What little we know about this syndrome shouldn’t frighten the general public. Just the opposite, in fact.

Researchers have struggled to pin down this little-understood malady because its symptoms run the gamut of the human experience. According to a study published in the journal JAMA Psychology this month, they include, but are not limited to, “fatigue, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, persistent cough, muscle/joint/chest pain, smell/taste problems, confusion/disorientation/brain fog, memory issues, depression/anxiety/changes in mood, headache, intermittent fever, heart palpitations, rash/blisters/welts, mouth or tongue ulcers, or other symptoms.” The complexity and scope of the condition helps to explain why the National Institutes of Health has struggled to secure a fraction of the 40,000 subjects it needs to enroll in its lavishly funded ($1 billion) study on the subject.

The study in JAMA did, however, identify a feature that suggests an individual is at higher risk of suffering the residual effects of a Covid infection: “preexisting psychological distress.” People who struggled with a variety of psychiatric issues—anxiety, depression, loneliness, dysmorphia, and so on—were as much as 50 percent more likely to experience long-term Covid-related complications.

This study isn’t breaking new ground. An April study posted on medRxiv preliminarily found that “the odds of self-reported long COVID augmented by [an odd ratio of] 1.25 with every added worry about adversity experience, such as job loss,” and “worries about adversity experiences emerged as a persistent predictor of long COVID.” Even the analysis of who is more likely to be stricken with this malady suggests stress is a common thread. A Census Bureau survey found that trans and bi-sexual adults are far more likely to report experiencing “long Covid” symptoms compared with people who are either straight or gay and lesbian. Younger (and, therefore, healthier) people are more likely to identify as long haulers. There is no medical data to suggest that one’s gender identity or preference for both sexes increases one’s risk from Covid. By contrast, there’s plenty of psychological data to suggest that, like young adults, the process of formulating one’s identity is a stressful condition.

There’s also a chicken/egg debate over whether a negative psychological disposition begets “long Covid” or vice versa. A study published in the Lancet earlier this year observed that non-hospitalized patients were more likely to develop depression and experience prolonged symptoms associated with infection. A subsequent study in the May issue of Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine observes much the same. It noted, though, that the “neuropsychiatric manifestations of ‘long COVID’” may be exacerbated by the suboptimal environmental conditions that prevailed in the pandemic, “such as social isolation and uncertainty concerning social, financial and health recovery post-COVID.”

None of this is to say that this condition simply isn’t real. “There could be an underlying personality disorder or major depressive disorder that could be informing the cognitive symptoms from COVID or making them worse,” said University of Colorado psychiatry instructor Dr. Heather Murray. A bad outlook can contribute to bad outcomes, and the pandemic was accompanied by a lot of depressing circumstances that surely contributed to a more severe experience for many. All this concedes, however, that psychological disposition is a major contributing factor for those who suffer from this condition. There is little evidence to suggest “long Covid” is a wholly epidemiological phenomenon and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary.

If the public health bureaucracy committed itself to advocating, if not outright enforcing, policies designed to mitigate what is at least in large measure a psychological condition, it would open the door to a lot of social engineering. For the activists who dominate the reporting on this subject, that seems to be the goal.

“We’re in the middle of the greatest mass-disabling event in human history,” said “long Covid” sufferer and advocate Charlie McCone in an interview with Time Magazine. He described America’s rushed return to the pre-pandemic status quo as a “crime against humanity,” and he’s hardly alone. According to the experts surveyed for this piece, the existence of this little-understood syndrome justifies the extension of mid-pandemic mitigation measures in perpetuity.

“A return to mask mandates would also be a good step,” argues one “long Covid” researcher, Hannah Davis, who also alleges (in Time) the claim that the British government’s statistics regarding “long Covid” sufferers is so low that the true figures are “being hidden intentionally.” Beyond that, she says the CDC should recommend longer self-isolation periods for those who contract Covid and “enforceable requirements” regarding air filtration and ventilation in private businesses.

So, what is the size of the population of “long Covid” sufferers for whom these and other extraordinary interventions into private American life are supposed to benefit? The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated last month that, based on survey data, anywhere from 10 to 35 million working-age Americans may have at one point struggled with the malady’s many symptoms. As of late August, according to the Brookings Institution, about 16 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 65 are similarly afflicted, and roughly 2 to 4 million of them cannot work as a result. It is not at all clear that these Americans would return to the labor market if the other 163 million in the workforce observed Covid mitigation protocols. Even if they did, such an indiscriminate remedy for such a discriminating condition isn’t justified by any rational assessment of the scale of this problem.

As anyone can attest, a Covid infection isn’t anything to take lightly. Even the vaccinated can experience a severe symptomatic response to the disease, and there’s evidence that symptoms can linger in some. But the totality of the evidence suggests there is a psychological component to this infirmity, which renders it difficult to nail down and even harder to mitigate via public policy. The global outbreak of a little-understood, airborne respiratory disease no one had yet encountered at least arguably justified extraordinary remedies, even if public health policy hands know they are a last resort. By contrast, using “long Covid” to justify the extension or readoption of those same remedies is a flimsy pretext.

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