Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Dishonor System

There was an excellent op-ed in today's newspaper on mask-wearing as the COVID pandemic starts to wind down.  I say it's excellent, of course, because it largely agrees with me, especially this bit:

I am astonished that the CDC and local and state health departments are explicitly depending on the honor system for unvaccinated people to continue mask wearing. When did personal responsibility become an effective public health strategy? Public health officials have never relied on people to act responsibly or prudently. That’s why we have public health regulations.

The people most eager to get rid of masks and to attack vaccination requirements are people without honor: people who produce fake vaccination cards, people who make fake legal arguments about discrimination, people who harass and even assault workers in businesses that require masks, people who tried to force the country to re-open even at the peak of cases last year, people who wanted to force others back to work without safety requirements in jobs that were heavily hit by the pandemic.  In my state, Indiana, they included Republican legislators who tried -- ultimately successfully -- to hobble public health measures, and who now want to cut short extra unemployment benefits in order to force (or so they hope) reluctant workers back to low-paid, unsafe jobs.  And, of course, there's considerable overlap between this stance and the claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

Many people, including me, drew analogies to other public health measures, such as the regulation and inspection of food establishments.  As it happens, a South Bend restaurant was recently closed by the board of health after longstanding multiple violations of the health code, culminating in two cases of food poisoning.  It emerged, however, that over the past couple of years the board of health had cut back on inspections and largely stopped public hearings on businesses with major violations.  The rationale was that they wanted not to subject the offenders to bad publicity that might hurt their business - which is, of course, the whole point of public hearings.  Despite all their fine talk of "choice," this policy had the effect of preventing the public from making informed choices.  It might have been defensible if the board quietly brought the offenders to compliance, but as this case showed, they quietly let the offenders continue to disregard the health of their customers.  It's not certain whether this case, emblazoned on the front page of the paper, will produce a return to transparency.  What is certain is that the push to eliminate public health protections isn't limited to infectious diseases.

As low as my opinion is of such people, I admit that I find their positions baffling.  We know that many of them remained steadfast in their denial of the seriousness of COVID-19 even when they got sick themselves -- even when they died of it, or when people close to them died.  But no matter.  Those who claim that they're entitled to disregard the health of others are wrong, both morally and legally.  They don't have the right to lie about their vaccination status.  They don't have the right to spread infection.

Myself, I still put on a mask when I enter businesses and other enclosed spaces, even though I've been vaccinated.  The more infectious, more virulent Delta variant of COVID-19 has been found in 37 states so far.  If we don't get another big wave of infections, wearing a mask won't hurt me and it won't hurt other people either.  As other people have observed, wearing a mask will probably also protect against the routine illnesses -- colds, flu -- that tend to spread in the fall and winter; it's why many people in East Asia have routinely worn masks for years.  The pandemic isn't over yet, but it's not all we have to worry about: the right-wing attacks on the public health system are partly meant to ensure unpreparedness for the next pandemic, but they aren't just about COVID,