How COVID Hawks Could Save More Lives

Scolding is counterproductive, but other steps will offer protection even as millions of Americans move on from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of a woman wearing a mask in a public space
Jamie Kelter Davis / The New York Times / Redux

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

On a recent Saturday, around the time that millions of Americans were preparing for a night of unmasked socializing indoors, the Unitarian pastor John Pavlovitz told his 380,000 Twitter followers, “More people have died from COVID over the last two days than in the 9/11 attacks—but I’m glad so many of you are over the pandemic.” Pressed for an explanation of that sarcastic statement, he explained, “I am double-vaxxed and boosted and wear a mask whenever I’m at the store or a public space. I canceled my gym membership two years ago and work out at home.”

People who are willing to let their guard down have faced far harsher criticism. Last month, my colleague Yascha Mounk suggested on MSNBC that “there’s no reason why we should be stopping ourselves from living a normal life because people who have chosen not to get vaccinated are still vulnerable” to COVID-19. The author Wajahat Ali dismissively responded, “Yes, I’m glad we’re now in the pro-death, pro-COVID, eff-them-kids portion of the pandemic. We started with eff Grandpa and Grandma, right, to get to herd immunity.”

Pro-death?

Prior to the rollout of vaccines that provide excellent protection against COVID-19, I too was a COVID hawk. Since then, I’ve received three vaccine shots and gone back to swimming at the gym and dining indoors. If asked to wear a mask, I comply. But I get frustrated when I see that young children are still being forced to wear masks in schools. And when people at an academic conference that I recently attended decided to sit unmasked during presentations in a conference room, I was heartened—not upset—to see everyone’s faces. Does that mean I am “over the pandemic”?

Not quite.

What I’m over are scolds who treat ongoing infections and deaths as an indictment of the public’s moral character—as if wanting to unmask and un-distance is rooted not in deep yearning for the human connection we evolved to crave, but in the selfishness of uncaring sociopaths.

Yes, COVID-19 hawks have an extremely powerful argument: Lots of people are still dying. But at this point, scolding COVID doves for not supporting indefinite mask mandates does no good. Many people whom Pavlovitz describes as “over the pandemic” would join the side of the COVID hawks if public debate were reoriented around nonrestrictive policy improvements that would remain effective even as the public’s focus on the pandemic waned. Here is an emergency agenda that a much broader coalition of Americans would be willing to support:

1. Better funding for public health. Yesterday, NPR reported on White House warnings that “it will have to wind down a program that pays to test, treat and vaccinate uninsured people for COVID-19 because the administration has run out of money for the program, which Congress failed to include in funding legislation,” and that “another immediate impact will be an end to federal funding for monoclonal antibodies, a treatment that had been provided free of charge.”

Stat recently reported that “the White House has held off on buying millions of courses of Pfizer’s highly effective antiviral drug that the White House already committed to buy due to budget constraints.” Shortages of highly effective COVID-19 treatments are a particularly stark example of how lives could be saved with more resources or more efficient allocation.

These budgeting and health-policy decisions are of infinitely greater consequence for pandemic response than the behavioral lapses and policy heresies that get individuals COVID-shamed on social media. It is time to unite mask enthusiasts and mask skeptics who agree on funding public health.

2. Better ventilation everywhere. COVID-19 spreads much better indoors than outdoors. So do other communicable diseases, such as influenza. Thus a strong case exists for making our indoor environments more like the outdoors. Better ventilation is highly likely to reduce mortality and sickness on a significant scale far into the future. Yet there’s more scolding of individuals for failing to mask up properly than pressuring the people in charge of buildings, or building codes, to adopt best practices. My colleague Sarah Zhang has written at length about this underrated intervention.

3. Operation Warp Speed for a universal coronavirus vaccine. Scientists are already testing a vaccine that could work across variants, but there’s no telling whether it will succeed. Insufficient effort and resources are being spent on accelerating the testing process, developing alternative candidates, and if all else fails, increasing the speed at which we can tweak existing vaccines and roll them out at scale if a new variant demands it.

4. A focused push to vaccinate and boost the elderly. As Zhang put it,

Persuading vaccine holdouts among the elderly at this point is hard, but COVID risk is so high for this group that it’s very much worth trying. Boosting the already vaccinated, by contrast, should be eminently doable, as the group is clearly open to vaccines. With America’s vaccination campaign sputtering, this is where efforts are likely to have the biggest payoff. Hospitalizations and deaths are so heavily concentrated in older people, in fact, that a single course of a vaccine in someone over 65 might have the same effect on those numbers as dozens given to the young.

Yet in recent months, one of COVID scolds’ biggest obsessions has been the podcaster Joe Rogan, whose listeners skew much, much younger.

5. Export more vaccine doses. Wealthy countries could be doing much more to vaccinate the world.

The Yale public-health expert Gregg Gonsalves recently tweeted, “We need new resources for #COVID19 both for the domestic & global response. @WhiteHouse & @CDCgov have to stop normalizing the pandemic first. We’re being told that we can stand down in so many ways just as they want Congress to stand up for more funding.”

Gonsalves is right that the world needs governments to marshal new resources to fight COVID-19. But remaining in crisis mode is stressful for most people, impossible for some, and dubious as a political strategy. The underlying message is: You must all stay masked and vigilant, like it or not––and due to the crisis, we need more money too. The more effective pitch would be: These investments can help us live normally in a world with this virus, as we must.

Criticizing others for being enthusiastic about getting back to normal fails to save lives and keeps fueling backlash because it is tedious and alienating. Why would it ever succeed? COVID hawks should pivot accordingly, embracing a plan for saving lives that works on the people who actually reside in America rather than an imagined public that responds well to scolding.