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Covid Amnesty: Is Mercy the Answer?


Mercy is a missing ingredient of our modern society.

As we fire 280-character social missiles, learn the necessary aim and outrage for maximum effect, update, and reload to fire again into the volley, I worry we might be forgetting about a world without constant cross-cultural conflict and the moral courage it takes to make peace.

COVID sucked. In case a pandemic wasn’t bad enough, we also had to live through the warzone of pandemic discourse between people afraid of a virus, conservatives afraid of an authoritarian bureaucracy of The Scientists, liberal scientists afraid of Trump, climate change, and securing tenure, and all manners of other aggrieved parties desperate for acknowledgement of the validity of their points.

Now, cases wane and subsequent outbreaks lead to diminishing medical demand and mortality burden (as predicted by my 2020 forecasts and corroborated by our analysis of Delta and Omicron outbreaks). As the dust settles and our battle-hardened souls soften amidst the social wreckage wrought by our battle, it’s understandable to thirst for the divine drink of peace. I, too, thirst for peace. While I’m grateful to see people apologizing for lockdowns, apologizing for harming kids, and so on, there’s still some unsettled dust we need to discuss before the balm of mercy can be applied.

For an anecdotal exercise, consider Professor Scott Galloway calling for COVID amnesty and apologizing for his advocacy of school closures to Bill Maher. The data now shows that school closures were harmful to kids and in a highly inequitable way. We pursued school closures despite many of us (myself included) having laid out all these anticipated consequences, and yet those of us who saw this trainwreck coming don’t have the reparations nor do we see the grace from school closure proponents that would make mercy easier.

Not only did school closures harm kids, but massive inequalities in our media, corporate, academic, and social media ecosystems permitted the harm of people who spoke up to oppose school closures and other harmful pandemic policies. Jennifer Sey lost her job at Levi’s for opposing school closures, I left my academic position because I didn’t want to use taxpayer funds to model quarantines in college kids, and countless others experienced significant professional consequences from engaging in the public health policy process by speaking their sincerely held views.

The Great Barrington Declaration authors were ostracized in the academy for merely reminding the world’s doctors of their Hippocratic Oath and the simple medical ethics of not harming patient A to help patient B. Vinay Prasad is cancelled at medical conferences.

As those who anticipated the harms to kids suffered professional harms, those who used their bully pulpit to push for school closures rose to prominence. Andy Slavitt was an obscure McKinsey bro until the pandemic hit, McKinsey consulted the Cuomo team during the March 2020 NYC surge, and Slavitt centered himself as a thought leader. This thoughtless thought leader called kids vectors of disease, and as a consequence of his intolerant fear mongering he was awarded a position on the Biden administration’s COVID task force.

Countless other epidemiologists who centered their ethnocentric perspectives as “The Science” saw their Twitter followings explode, and they used this new bully pulpit to block young scientists – myself included – who brought diversity into the room by speaking our independent beliefs.

For me, personally, the reason I opposed school closures was because I grew up in the school-to-prison pipeline of underfunded public schools in Albuquerque. I had friends whose dads beat them, whose parents were alcoholics, one friend whose parents did meth and cut the heads off of chickens in front of all of us while laughing, whose home lives were not conducive to remote learning. I brought these friends with me in my heart to academic discussions on school closures.

I also grew up with a profound hearing loss and I’ve always relied on lip-reading to survive (not to mention to succeed and get a PhD from Princeton), so at times I articulated the competing risks of mask mandates in schools by advocating for hard-of-hearing students.

For all their talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, many white, liberal, and privileged academics have a lot to learn about tolerance. The response to my personal advocacy was not tolerance, curiosity, understanding, and compassion, but rather call-outs from people who grew up in private schools and a persistent blocking and bullying from leaders in the field, including people like Gregg Gonsalves at Yale, Gavin Yamey at Duke, Peter Hotez, Kristian Andersen, Angela Rasmussen, and others who have risen to prominence because of their bullying, because of their shots fired at people with different views.

When I hear these people call for COVID amnesty, while I remain blocked and shunned by people with immense power in our academic institutions, while my reputation is dragged through the mud with lies and mischaracterizations about my truths and my character, forgive me but I have a difficult time being merciful. When I see someone on MSNBC or Bill Maher calling for amnesty despite having obtained the privilege of being on international news outlets because of their wartime hostilities and intolerance, I see a problem. While they call for mercy to safeguard the social capital of people who were wrong, whose behavior caused harm, they have done nothing to elevate the voices – and the people – they suppressed.

I remain blocked, bullied, and shunned by academics who used their tenure and institutional power to exclude diverse views from the room. Jennifer Sey remains unemployed by Levi’s. Prasad remains cancelled by medical conferences. The Great Barrington Declaration authors remain ostracized and mischaracterized by those who determine science funding, conference committees, and other bottlenecks of academic opportunity and power. These are just a few examples and there are countless more of us who suffered in this social warzone, fighting for our sincere beliefs in a courageous act of public health participation.

The dust that settles too early contaminates our open wounds. The kids remain harmed, those who harmed them remain centered as thought leaders, and those who had the courage and insight to anticipate these harms remain excluded from the information bubble that caused this harm in the first place.

From my heart of hearts, I don’t hate the people who caused us harm in order to exclude us from the public health policy process and cause further harm to kids like the friends I grew up with. I understand that they were afraid, that they grew up with vastly different circumstances, that they, like me, are products of circumstance, and that they just happened to control the cannons and mortar shells when I only had a Swiss army knife.

I would be overjoyed to drop my knife if only they would yield control of the cannons, stop firing from their positions of power, help us heal the wounded, and help us glorify the heroes who were right all along.

Why don’t they hand the microphone to us to learn more about who we are as humans and how we were able to anticipate these harms? If they feel bad about being wrong, why not share their social capital with the people they excluded from the room?

Until we have meaningful reconciliation, amnesty will merely cement the incumbents’ hold on academic, media, and narrative power, all but ensuring we repeat the failures of pandemic public health policy. Thus, for those of us who anticipated the harms to kids, we can further anticipate the harms of granting mercy to those whose trembling, intolerant hands still hold the cannons.

Republished from the author’s Substack

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Alex Washburne

    Alex Washburne is a mathematical biologist and the founder and chief scientist at Selva Analytics. He studies competition in ecological, epidemiological, and economic systems research, with research on covid epidemiology, the economic impacts of pandemic policy, and stock market response to epidemiological news.

    View all posts

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