Let's have a Covid policy amnesty
At the time, confidence in any particular course of action was unwarranted. In retrospect, it remains so.
State Senate Republicans rejected Gov. Katie Hobbs’ nominee to be director of the Department of Health Services, Dr. Theresa Cullen, because of a policy disagreement over how the government should have responded to Covid. As head of the public health agency in Pima County, Cullen supported and implemented lockdowns and government mask mandates. Republicans opposed those policies.
There were other complaints, but that’s the heart of the matter.
I have written previously that rejecting an executive branch nominee because of a policy disagreement is an abuse of the legislative confirmation authority within a separation of powers framework. Cullen was superbly qualified to be DHS director, based upon her academic, professional, and administrative experiences. Hobbs should be able to staff her administration with those who agree with and will capably implement her policies. She won the election. The legislature should pursue policy disagreements through legislation, not by denying her qualified staffing of her choosing.
Let's, however, deal with the policy dispute. I would make the case for an amnesty from and for all sides regarding Covid policy.
I say that as someone who fundamentally disagreed with Cullen regarding lockdowns and government mask mandates. From the beginning of the virus’ spread in the United States, I thought its pathological profile warranted a much more targeted approach.
That profile had some instructive characteristics. For certain populations – the elderly and those with heart or respiratory conditions – Covid was much more lethal than the flu. But, as a general rule, it wasn’t much different, in terms of severity, than the flu or a head cold for the rest of the population. We later learned that many people had symptomless cases.
To me, this meant that the best approach was to let people make their own risk assessments and make their own decisions regarding the precautions they wanted to take. And to concentrate public health attention and resources on the vulnerable populations for whom the virus had, and continues to have, a heightened lethality. This approach eventually found credentialed support in the Great Barrington Declaration.
That wasn’t the approach Arizona took. Then Gov. Doug Ducey ordered a general lockdown and made mask mandates a condition of reopening many businesses. He was roundly criticized by what I, and others, ended up calling the public health left for allegedly lifting these restrictions too quickly. Cullen was among those arguing for longer lockdowns and mask mandates.
In criticizing GOP senators for rejecting Cullen’s appointment, Hobbs stated that her policies directing the public health response to Covid in Pima County saved lives. That’s undoubtedly true, even though I favored a different approach. More permitted interaction means more spread. More spread means more deaths. The general rule is just that, a general rule. It isn’t true in all cases.
Covid management was a high-stakes exercise in risk assessment and tradeoffs. As I argued at the time, as cold as it might sound, preventing deaths shouldn’t be the only policy consideration. Lockdowns had economic, social, and health consequences that also should be taken into account. Government mask mandates had liberty implications.
The virus was new. Its pathological profile changed as it mutated. The risk assessment was a moving target, for individuals and the population as a whole. Projecting the consequences of any particular package of tradeoffs was a stab in the dark.
At the time, confidence in any particular course of action was unwarranted. Even in retrospect, unbridled confidence about what should or should not have been done is unwarranted.
Humility is in short supply in politics today. Unfortunately, it was also in short supply during the course of the pandemic among the public health left. That’s part of the reason, although far from the whole of it, why Covid management still reverberates as a political issue.
Covid is now being managed as I and some others argued it should have been from the beginning. People make their own risk assessments and make their own decisions regarding precautions. There’s not going to be a return to lockdowns and government mask mandates.
But because that is where Covid management has ended up doesn’t mean that it should have always been that. The virus has evolved, vaccines invented and distributed, tradeoff evaluations altered.
Given the high stakes, difficult tradeoffs, and persistent uncertainties, we would be much better off as a body politic if we grant an amnesty to all those, irrespective of approach taken, who acted in good faith in positions of authority during the pandemic.
Politically, condemning those who thought government did too little, or did too much, is a destructive dead end.
Reach Robb at email@example.com.