As early as September 2020, the “experts” were starting to say aloud what was previously the exclusive province of cranks and conspiracy theorists: The temporary emergency measures necessitated by the pandemic were never going away.
“There is no getting ‘back to normal,’ experts say,” CNN’s headline read. “The sooner we accept that, the better.” Americans should be conditioned to “avoid large gatherings” and “wear a mask” in perpetuity. Even after the approval and distribution of effective Covid vaccines, representatives of the public health apparatus continued to endorse permanent alterations to the social compact. Dr. Anthony Fauci recommended integrating social distancing and mask mandates into the social compact at least until we achieve “a profound degree of herd immunity.” With the prevalence of “breakthrough infections,” herd immunity has become unattainable. But the public health sector’s thinking has not changed. Twenty-twenty’s emergency restrictions have evolved into a way of life.
On Sunday, Dr. Fauci was confronted with some resistance to his policy preferences, and not just from the usual suspects. The CEOs of two major airlines last week implored Congress to allow masking mandates on airlines to sunset in March of next year, noting that “masks don’t add much” to the powerful air filtering inside airplane cabins. After all, the study of Covid’s spread on airplanes has led observers to preliminarily conclude that the risk associated with air travel—even with infected passengers aboard—is minimal. Fauci summarily rejected their appeals.
“I don’t think so,” Fauci said when asked if we’re “going to get to the point where we won’t have to wear masks” on airplanes. “I think when you’re dealing with a closed space even though the filtration is good, that you want to go that extra step when you have people—you know, you get a flight from Washington to San Francisco, it’s well over a five-hour flight. Even though you have a good filtration system, I think that masks are still a prudent thing to do, and we should be doing it.”
At no point did the doctor suggest that the sacrifice of a status quo that has pertained since the advent of commercial air travel was necessary as a response to Covid. Nor did the doctor address these CEOs claims about this disease’s communicability on airplanes. He all but conceded the validity of their concerns, in fact. What Fauci said was that masking in an enclosed environment was “prudent,” the presence or absence of Covid notwithstanding. That’s a measure we should mandate forever, or at least until it becomes a self-reinforcing social norm.
Fauci’s prescription for perpetual masking dovetails with the guidance out of Joe Biden’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Masks can help reduce your chance of #COVID19 infection by more than 80%,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky recently informed the public, but she didn’t stop there. “Masks also help protect from other illnesses like common cold and flu.” Masking in public, she suggested, should be part of a daily hygiene regimen like washing your hands.
All this might just be a species of prudence if it wasn’t contributing to a psychological orientation that can no longer gauge relative risk. Indeed, it’s a persuasion that rejects the compartmentalization of relative risk entirely.
“The pandemic is potentially driving another national crisis related to its effects on behavioral health,” a recent Government Accountability Office report to Congress began, “with people experiencing new or exacerbated behavioral health symptoms or conditions.” Among the many “behavioral” maladies plaguing the public as we approach the pandemic’s third year are depression, exhaustion, and hypochondria.
That seems to have been confirmed by a New York Times dispatch this week chronicling the “overwhelming anxiety” suffered by those who do not have Covid, but who obsessively behave like they do even when “they actually have a more mundane illness.” To hear some in the public health sphere tell it, those mundane illnesses are as much a menace as a disease that is responsible for taking 800,000 American lives. “If it is not Covid, we still don’t want these other viruses spread around,” said the New York State Department of Health’s Dr. Emily Lutterloh. “It is still prudent to stay home, and the same mitigation measures that will help Covid from spreading are likely to help stop these.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that Dr. Fauci was, like so many of his colleagues, aware that the public’s tolerance for extraordinary interventions into their day-to-day lives was finite. “This will end,” the doctor said. “I promise you.” Apparently not. The groundwork now is being laid to extend the pandemic’s emergency measures in perpetuity and apply it to conditions that were once a banal part of daily life. At least they’re being honest about that now.