Published May 10, 2021
Even though vaccines essentially mean victory over COVID-19, some pandemic junkies just can’t quit the lockdown lifestyle. Exhibit A: Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband were recently photographed exchanged a masked-up goodbye kiss, outdoors, and despite both of them being fully vaccinated. Similar examples abound, such as President Biden masking up for a videoconference.
The justifications for such behavior — “they were setting an example” or “other people were around” — frankly, only make matters worse. These displays are nonsensical as public health measures, and insofar as these excesses encourage the skeptical to believe that it is all a farce, instead of encouraging responsible mask-wearing, they discourage it.
These displays, which are far beyond any science-based recommendations, also weaken the essential public health messages encouraging people to get vaccinated. After all, if vaccines don’t allow a return to normal life — including kisses with actual physical contact — what is the point of them?
In truth, Operation Warp Speed has been a scientific triumph. At this point, almost any American adult who wants to be vaccinated can be, and the vaccines are proving exceptionally effective. American coronavirus cases and deaths are dropping, and, unlike previous dips, this time they will hopefully stay down. Yet some people still seem unwilling to accept we’re winning the fight against the virus.
For example, the Transportation and Security Administration recently extended its mask mandate for travel on planes, trains, and busses — not just for another month or two, but through mid-September. The Biden administration is still hemming and hawing over reopening schools, in large part due to pressure from teachers unions.
As this suggests, some of the resistance to returning to normalcy is driven by those who have benefitted from the abnormality of the last year, from online retailers to anxious, anti-social neurotics to teachers who like never having to set foot in a classroom. But there is more than material self-interest at work here. For some people, overreaction to the virus has become an identity.
Writing in The Atlantic, Emma Green describes the mindset and practices of “liberals who aren’t quite ready to let go of pandemic restrictions. For this subset, diligence against COVID-19 remains an expression of political identity — even when that means overestimating the disease’s risks or setting limits far more strict than what public-health guidelines permit.” For such persons, extremism in defense against COVID-19 is no vice, regardless of what scientific evidence shows to be necessary. They’ll double-mask outdoors after vaccination under the banner of sticking it to Trump.
These efforts often seem to go beyond the political motives that Green diagnoses, to something more akin to a spiritual identity. Displays such as Harris’s masked kiss are best understood as aesthetic displays of asceticism to prove one’s ritual purity — public displays of piety to the civic cult of taking COVID-19 seriously. Their very excess is meant to demonstrate zeal in the pursuit of virtue.
Religion often demands self-sacrifice and self-denial; and for some, pandemic precautions seem to offer a substitute that they are loath to give up. Furthermore, triumph via vaccine undermines their sense of righteousness, for vaccines work for the just and the unjust. There is a sense that some people would prefer that the story of victory over the pandemic not be one of anonymous scientific success, but of personal virtue, in which the righteous are preserved from the plague.
Perhaps this reads too much into pandemic behavior. But something is needed to explain the extraordinary psychology of those who — claiming to believe in Science! — persist in ritually going far beyond what our scientific knowledge suggests is needed for personal and public health.
To be sure, we should take the horrible pandemic China unleashed on the world seriously, and continue to take reasonable precautions as vaccine distribution is ongoing. But there is no virtue in demonstrating excessive fear, and such displays may discourage those on the fence about getting vaccinated.
There are lessons to be learned from the pandemic, but many of the personal health ones are those we already knew, such as regularly washing one’s hands and stay home when sick. We should be especially careful around the elderly, the immunocompromised, newborn infants, and other vulnerable persons — bringing sick kids to church is selfish, not pious. But these elements of consideration and common sense do not require that we permanently become masked, paranoid loners.
Likewise, fears of a vaccine-evading coronavirus variant arising should not preclude enjoying the benefits of vaccine success now. Thus far, the vaccines appear effective against variant strains, and we cannot forever suspend interpersonal life out of fear of a viral mutation that might or might not happen.
As vaccines are being doled out, there are reasonable discussions and disagreements to be had over how to handle this final stretch of the pandemic in the United States. What we cannot allow is for our policies to be driven by pandemic junkies who are determined to keep getting their fix of fear and fake virtue.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.