Oops, We Forgot the Democracy: Covid-19 Policy and Our Response to Crises

Last summer, I wrote an opinion piece for the Daily Hampshire Gazette entitled, “Greater balance needed in Covid-19 policy,” which was published on August 11.

In the piece, I wrote that Covid-19 policy was focusing on “stopping the virus to the exclusion of all other concerns,” and that if we continued to discount the resulting costs to society—job losses, failure of small businesses, disruption to young people’s education and social development, and degradation of our civic and social life—we would “pay a heavy price for it.”

Unfortunately, the past six months have not brought a change in approach, with the social isolation measures we have now all grown accustomed to—restrictions on businesses, event cancellations, stay-at-home policies, staying six feet apart and wearing masks in public—all firmly locked in place.  And some of the costs of these policies are starting to become apparent.  We now have evidence of deaths likely related to social isolation: here, here, and hereResearch studies confirm the terrible toll on children and adolescents.  Governments around the world have taken on massive debt to keep their economies afloat—debt that will someday have to be paid back.  Working class people in this country are suffering from Depression-like economic conditions.  And the poor in developing countries are descending into even more crushing poverty, and are at elevated risk of starvation.

Of course, we won’t know the full cost of the social isolation policies adopted in response to Covid-19 for quite some time, as many of the worst effects will take years to manifest.

While all of this is deeply troubling, as I think about how our society will emerge from the pandemic and the lockdowns, what concerns me even more is the failure of democratic process that led to such unbalanced policy, and what this failure implies about our response to future crises.

The fact is that I don’t know for sure what the right balance is now, or what it should have been at the outset of the pandemic.  I am convinced that sacrificing our children’s education and social development has been an egregious mistake.  And I believe that we are still undervaluing the long-term costs of our current policies.  It is, after all, human nature to respond more strongly to immediate threats than to more distant ones.

But the truth is that there is no single correct answer to the dilemma of how to weigh the costs and benefits of various policy options and balance them against each other.  Different people will arrive at different answers based on their own values and interests.  That is what democracy is for—to balance differing values and competing interests, to create the space for an open and respectful debate, and to make the most accurate, up-to-date information as widely accessible as possible.  When democracy works, it gives us the best chance to adopt policies that meet the needs and reflect the values of the American people.

Clearly, our democracy did not work this way with respect to Covid-19.  Liberals have of course blamed the incompetence and irresponsibility of the Trump administration for nearly everything that has gone wrong with Covid-19 policy.  But without defending Trump, I think it is time for the mostly-liberal professional class that designed, implemented, and advocated for social isolation policies to engage in some introspection about its own behavior.

Instead of having an open, reasoned policy debate, and a fair balancing of values and interests, this professional class of “experts” arrogated decision making power to itself, while failing to acknowledge the influence of its own class biases and interests on the policies it adopted.  And since the lockdowns began, we have seen mainstream media organs such as the New York Times abandon intellectual honesty, and instead act as cheerleaders for “expert”-determined policies, while seemingly regarding frightening people into compliance with these policies as a public service they are providing.

It is true that social isolation polices have sparked widespread opposition in some parts of the country.  But this opposition has largely been grounded in knee jerk defiance of liberal elites, blind loyalty to our former president, and scorn for expert opinion, rather than a willingness to challenge and engage with it.

Covid-19 is not the last crisis of its kind that our society will face.  Scientists have been warning for decades that the combined effects of climate change and globalization will make pandemics more frequent occurrences.  What if we face a new viral threat every five to ten years?  Will we live in a permanent state of lockdown?

Moreover, it seems likely that we will experience a series of economic and ecological crises in the coming years.  If we respond to every new crisis the way we have responded to Covid-19, with panicked overreaction, a single-minded focus on eradicating the immediate threat with no thought for the long-term consequences, and an unwillingness or inability to face up to hard choices, we will leave our children and grandchildren with a society that is sadly diminished, and hardly worth living in.  If our only political choices are the self-satisfied consensus of the experts, or a defiant, anti-intellectual opposition, if every new crisis tears the country further apart, we will weaken our democracy, perhaps to the breaking point.

I will admit I am pessimistic that we will change course on Covid-19 policy anytime soon, not as long as vaccine rollouts give people hope that life will return to something resembling normal by this summer.

But the advent of this blog gives me hope that we may find our way towards both a better decision making process and better policy outcomes in the future.  I am no under no illusion that the blog will appeal to supporters of our former president—nor is it primarily a space for political debate.  But for those who are also troubled by the issues I raised in the Gazette last summer, it should serve as a welcome space for developing an accurate understanding of the science of Covid-19, for holding the experts and the media accountable, and perhaps in the not-too-distant future, for a re-evaluation of Covid-19 policy, which may then form the basis for a better approach to future crises.

Michael Alterman


Michael Alterman holds an A.B. in Social Studies from Harvard College, and an M.A. in Urban and Environmental Policy from Tufts University.  He lives in Chesterfield, and is a student of American history and politics.

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