Riot Response Proves the Pandemic Precautions Were Always Political—And That’s Fine

Many Americans were shocked when the demands for social distancing, slavish public masking, and lockdowns to combat the global coronavirus pandemic—backed by social shaming, arrests, fines, and even jail time—were suddenly dropped. Just like that, the scourge of COVID-19 seemed to be over, ending not with a whimper but with a literal bang—nationwide riots.

Our abrupt about-face regarding measures to combat coronavirus is instructive; in fact, it reveals the fundamental soundness of the lockdown skeptics’ position.

Why have we suddenly and dramatically distanced ourselves from things like social distancing? Does COVID-19 not spread in tightly packed, so-called righteous protests? Did Black Lives Matter secretly develop a vaccine that allows them to gather without masks? Has COVID-19 disappeared overnight, perhaps prompted, strangely, by the killing of George Floyd?

Of course not.

It’s just finally dawned on the lockdown fetishists that a meaningful human existence requires acknowledging and pursuing a diverse array of human goods, of which a preserve-mere-human-life-at-any-cost mentality is a deadly enemy. In other words, those who now don’t mind that viral-control protocols are being flouted with impunity by “anti-racist” demonstrators have come to their senses, once again recognizing that there are competing goods at stake in all this madness.

They’re not hypocrites; they’re human beings.

We All Have a Sense of What We’re Willing to Die for

Recall that before the riots broke out in earnest, many—usually, but not exclusively, those identified as “conservative”—insisted that the draconian measures instituted to combat the spread of COVID-19 had real costs, even if they did save lives. Basically, the argument was that there were other important goods—cultivating friendships, engaging in meaningful work to feed one’s family, recreation, pursuing healthy balance to stave off pathological temptations, having funerals to mourn the dead, worshipping God, and so on—that needed to be attended to in the anti-pandemic battle plan. They understood that the myopic attempt to reduce the entire, complex web of issues to a vapid slogan—“If it saves even one life, we must do it!”—was disingenuous and manipulative.


Pro-protest folks are saying the same thing!

The basic argument goes something like the following: There is a grave, festering injustice in the country, of which George Floyd’s killing is but a particularly visceral symptom. Yes, COVID-19 still lingers; we know the risks. But you know what? This issue is far too important to sideline for who knows how many months until we get a handle on COVID-19, and besides, the raw number of lives saved can’t be the only important good—there are others at stake, like striving toward a more just, humane society.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s someone making exactly that argument:

People are asking how I could be so pro-quarantine and now pro-protest. I’ll put it like this: 

If the bus driver tells you to put on your seatbelt, you absolutely should. If the bus driver starts shooting passengers, it’s probably worth unbuckling.

For the trolls: I know it’s not a perfect analogy, because there’s a lot of nuance here. Protestors should wear masks and socially distance. But the point is there are causes for which it is worth taking on risk. Eating at restaurants is not one. Stopping police brutality is. [Emphasis added]

And here’s another, from NeverTrumper Amanda Carpenter, author at The Bulwark: “I realize there is [a] lot of scolding of protesters in regards to the pandemic but consider the possibility the protesters think the cause is important enough that they are willing to risk COVID. . . .”

This is precisely why people who were skeptical of our manic posture regarding COVID-19 were deeply frustrated, and why their frustration has both deepened and intensified.

Just a couple weeks ago (doesn’t it feel like a lifetime ago?), blue state governors and other members of the leftist ruling class, especially its intellectuals, not-so-subtly implied that those who were skeptical of shutting down the entire country for two-plus months were literal grandma killers. Or bloodthirsty human sacrificersoops! (Here’s a list of such examples, which are legion.)

In reality, however, the lockdown skeptics were simply reasoning honestly, as human beings do, about the messiness of life—namely, its costs and benefits, and its myriad trade-offs, which all need to be accounted for in an environment shot through with systemic uncertainty.

These people—and I proudly count myself among them—recognized that there were lots of human goods at play wrapped up in our plans to respond to COVID-19, and we tried to articulate our belief that every single one of them was being ignored—all except the crazed struggle to preserve bare human life by “flattening the curve” at any cost. We did all this while also trying to navigate a minefield littered with bad-faith detractors who insisted that we were not-so-secretly putting our personal comfort ahead of their beloved relatives’ very lives.

And now, everyone who opposed the radical anti-pandemic response—showcased most clearly by states headed by Democratic governors—is appalled that doctors and experts suddenly support tossing aside their prior public-health recommendations and guidance for the sake of advancing these protest-riots. They cite politically-inflected thinking as the unsavory, cynical reason for the shift.

Their anger at this latest reversal is understandable, but they should take it as a win. They’ve actually been vindicated. This is exactly what we’ve been saying the whole time.

It’s Impossible to Erase Politics from Societal Deliberation

The decisions to shut down the country, lock people in their homes, and then open up (to whatever degrees states have done so), in the final analysis, were solidly based on politics—that is, a concern for the whole of the community.

Were many of those judgments regarding the pandemic partisan, politicized judgments—that is to say, not properly political? Yes. Can the same be said of the judgments regarding the protest-riots? Again, yes.

But that’s the whole point. It is foolish in the extreme to pretend that politics—in the high sense of the word, i.e., concern for the whole polity—can be excised from major, governmental action, as with COVID-19 and the riot-protests. Politics, properly understood, cannot be separated from such decisions; it is endemic to public life.

And the protest-riots ought to prove it for any who were in doubt about that back when COVID-19 came a-knockin’.

Nature is healing, as they say. Politics is at play once again.

About Deion A. Kathawa

Deion A. Kathawa is an attorney who hails from America’s heartland. He holds a J.D. from the University of Notre Dame and a B.A. from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He is a 2021 alumnus of the Claremont Institute’s John Marshall Fellowship. Subscribe to his “Sed Kontra” newsletter.

Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

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