One year ago, between March 13 and 16, 2020, began what most of us would agree were the most difficult days of our lives. We thought our rights and liberties were more or less secure or could only be hobbled on the margin. We took certain things for granted, such as that our governments would not – and could not – order us to stay home, close most businesses and schools, shut down travel, padlock churches and concert halls, cancel events, much less lock down society in the name of virus control.
All that changed with a federal document issued March 13, 2020, and declassified three months later. It was the lockdown guidelines. Over the following days, governors panicked. People panicked. Bureaucrats were unleashed. All the powers of the state at all levels of society were deployed not on the virus but on the people, which is all that governments can really control. The lockdowns were nearly universal, implemented around the world but for a few holdouts, one of which was in the US (South Dakota).
A year later, most states are opening up while those still clinging to lockdowns can no longer control people. Regardless of warnings from the top that going back to normal life is too dangerous, most people have decided to be done with the whole dreadful episode.
All year we’ve asked ourselves the question: why did this happen? Pathogens are part of life now and always have been. For the better part of a century, social and economic outcomes from new viruses were ever less disruptive. Public health had a settled consensus that disease is something to mitigate through doctor-patient relationships. Taking away people’s rights was out of the question. The last time that was tried in very limited ways in 1918 demonstrated that coercion only distracts, divides, and delays. This is why lockdowns were not attempted for another hundred years. Wisely so.
In the severe pandemic of 1957-58, officials explicitly said: ‘‘[T]here is no practical advantage in the closing of schools or the curtailment of public gatherings as it relates to the spread of this disease.’’ It was the same in 1968-69, 2006, 2009, and 2012-13.
Then came 2020 and SARS-CoV-2. The 24-hour news cycle and social media kicked in. Shocking images from China – people dropping dead in streets, police dragging people out of their homes or otherwise sealing whole apartment units – were blasted onto cellphones the world over. Then a part of Italy seemed to erupt. To many, it felt like a plague, and a primitive ￼disease panic took over political culture.
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