Science is like a weathervane: it gives you information, which you can use to decide on a course of action, but it doesn’t tell you what to do. The decision belongs to you, not to the swirling metal rooster. A weathervane can tell you there’s a stiff wind coming in from the northwest, but it can’t tell you how to respond to the data.
In the early months, while secular folks were exhorting everyone to stay home, stay safe, mask up, and all the rest, religious leaders began pushing back against what they saw as encroachments on freedom of worship. It wasn’t just church closures or bans on choral singing they opposed. They cried out against the whole worldview underpinning the rules, a mindset that reduces people to their health and risk status.
We need pandemic policies rooted in human nature—policies that meet people where they are, not where some sanctimonious Twitter warriors decide they should be. Throwing the S-word around doesn’t earn respect or cooperation from the accused. Au contraire: when pelted with character-assassinating epithets, people double down.
To everyone who dumped on me for questioning the shutdown of civilization and calling out the damage it inflicted on the young and the poor: you can take your shaming, your scientific posturing, your insufferable moralizing, and stuff it. Every day, new research knocks more air out of your smug pronouncements.
As we step into year three, we urgently need to widen the lens beyond Covid metrics, beyond epidemiology, beyond even science itself. With Covid easing into endemicity, we need to grapple with big-picture concepts like costs, benefits and tradeoffs. We need to ask the tough questions. We need to name the hulking elephants in the room, to lift up their trunks and see what lies beneath.
Lacking the big-picture thinking and inner convictions to make tough calls, our ostensible leaders let themselves be pushed around by scientists whose ideas they did not understand. Nor did they have the guts to balance them with other measures of societal health. Mix in the fear of angering the Twitter mob and you get a recipe for timid, uninspired orations.
Freedom matters—even in a pandemic. Without freedom, elderly people may spend their remaining time on earth isolated from their loved ones, and we know that social isolation kills. Without freedom, people may lose not only their livelihoods but the momentum and opportunity to build careers as flight attendants, orchestra musicians, chefs, or scientists working on viruses. Without freedom, children may lose important and irretrievable experiences and milestones. Without freedom, life becomes a shadow of itself.
As we demarcate our own comfort zones, we could all use an extra dose of compassion for those who make different calibrations. Whichever strategy claims our allegiance—persisting with strict compliance or loosening the reins—it pays to remember that people on the other side want the pandemic to end as much as we do: they simply disagree on how it will happen.