Time for Covidnomics

Government has done what it can. Now we need to use the power of free markets to fight the pandemic.

An illustration of a green coronavirus nestled inside a supermarket cart
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

First Canada overtook the United States in the vaccination race. Now the European Union has done so. Even poor European countries such as Greece, Lithuania, and Poland have surpassed vaccine-resistant U.S. states such as Ohio, Arkansas, and Missouri.

Why is this happening? Facebook exists on the other side of the Atlantic as much as it does on ours. Europeans do not lack for far-right political parties swayed by Russian misinformation. They are not better educated: Most EU countries send fewer of their young people to postsecondary institutions than the United States does. Anybody who has ever visited a European pharmacy has seen that Europeans are at least as susceptible to quack medicine as Americans.

One big difference between the U.S. and the EU is that European governments have been readier than U.S. governments to impose direct consequences on those who refuse vaccines. On July 1, the European Union adopted a digital pass confirming one’s vaccinated status, and individual member states are restricting access to public facilities for those who do not carry the pass. In Italy, for example, after August 6, anyone over the age of 12 who wants to enter a restaurant, gym, swimming pool, or cinema will need to have their green pass scanned at the door.

The EU system turns proof of vaccination into a QR code that EU citizens can store on their phone. The same code works in all EU countries and is available free of charge to EU citizens in both their national language and English.

By contrast, U.S. governments have been very reluctant to go the proof-of-vaccination route. Many Republican-governed states have gone out of their way to protect the right to infect. And even if a state were to try to roll out such a mandate, how would it do so? My CDC-issued proof of vaccination is a piece of cardboard inscribed with a nurse’s handwriting. I can scan it with my phone and instantly email it anywhere on Earth—but the document itself remains the product of Depression-era library-card technology.

The COVID-denial policies of so many state governments did not result from inattention or incompetence. They were intentionally adopted to serve influential constituencies and uphold powerful ideologies. They are not mistakes. They are plans. But if ideologically deformed local government defines 21st-century America, so too does the ingenuity and adaptability of the private sector. Science did its part by developing the vaccines in record time. The federal government and many state governments did their part by getting vaccines into willing arms.

Now here’s where markets get to do their part.

Thanks to gerrymandering and the overrepresentation of rural areas in legislatures and Congress, unvaccinated America exerts disproportionate political power. Vaccinated America, however, has more market power. And it’s time for individual consumers to start using it.

Ordering an Uber or a Lyft? Ask the driver whether he is vaccinated. If not, refuse the ride. If the company tries to charge you for the refusal, complain. Pretty soon, Uber and Lyft will require that their drivers be vaccinated.

Contemplating a holiday? Cruises departing from Florida are forbidden to require proof of vaccination from passengers. Cruises departing from almost all other ports do require it. Plan accordingly.

Hundreds of bars and restaurants in New York, San Francisco, and other cities require proof of vaccination from their patrons. When making your next reservation, ask whether that establishment does too.

Even consumer pressure can only do so much, though. Private businesses need to do their part as well. New York State has created a phone-based digital pass. Businesses elsewhere in the United States can pressure their governments to create similar voluntary systems, or they can band together to create their own. Two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that whereas in France new initiatives were habitually launched by the government, in the United States it was private associations that led the way. There’s no reason that can’t hold true today.

Underneath the right-wing outrage against Big Tech is the angry recognition that America’s most dynamic and fastest-growing companies all recognize that, when they must choose, choosing the values of metropolitan America is just better business. The Pride flag is more lucrative than the Confederate flag, and nobody knows that better than the Confederate flag’s last standard-bearers.

Over the early summer, conservative governors such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis struck first, deploying the power of state government to impose their values on recalcitrant businesses. Now it’s time for public-health-conscious consumers to strike back, just as they would if the state of Florida tried to junk its fire codes or abolish food-safety rules or forbid cruise ships at Florida ports from carrying lifeboats.

The Biden administration’s preference on COVID-19 rules has been to move slowly—to follow public opinion rather than force it. That makes political sense. But COVID-conscious America has a friend and ally that can move faster. Say hello to Mr. Market.