COVID Lockdowns: A Looking Glass Into Our ‘Science-Driven’ Future

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Climate change policies are arising largely the same way: dismissing skepticism, citing experts, with little thought of possible failure.

California Governor Gavin Newsom visits Harun Coffee in Leimert Park after several days of protest in Los Angeles on June 3, 2020. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In March, President Trump tweeted in reference to the coronavirus lockdowns, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” As usual, Trump’s plain-spoken, blunt messaging, despite its lack of nuance, was prophetic in more ways than one.

I write from Los Angeles County, California, where coronavirus restrictions are among the most stringent in the country. For all intents and purposes, LA County never fully reopened. Indoor dining, for instance, was never allowed. Yet despite the robust lockdown policy, we now appear to be the epicenter of the COVID surge in America. Earlier in the pandemic saga, surges were treated by experts and media alike as a symptom of Republican COVID-denial. Science-refuting laxness around mask wearing and reckless economic freedoms, typically embraced by Republican lawmakers, were being repaid, so the logic went, with higher COVID case rates. When Florida and Texas experienced a summer surge, their negligent COVID policies were deemed the culprit.

But when the facts on the ground changed, the narrative didn’t. California, which also experienced a summer surge despite more stringent lockdown measures, was excluded from the negative press coverage. And since at least Thanksgiving, a virus surge in Democrat-controlled California and particularly Los Angeles County has continued unabated. My point here is not to relish COVID infections in Democratic states or the severe strain on hospitals, both of which are tragedies. It’s to ask the question that Dr. Scott Atlas did in a recent op-ed and that nobody else in the county or state’s leadership seems willing or self-aware enough to ask.

In Dr. Atlas’s trenchant words: “Lockdown policies had baleful effects on local economies, families and children, and the virus spread anyway. If one advocates more lockdowns because of bad outcomes so far, why don’t the results of those lockdowns matter?”

The results are—or should be—thought provoking: 11 percent unemployment in Los Angeles County in November versus 6.4 percent unemployment in the state of Florida. While taxes and regulation certainly play a role in that disparity, lockdown policies do as well. (Florida’s governor recently took lockdowns off the table as a surge fighting strategy.) What’s more, despite California’s and Los Angeles’ strict lockdown measures, which in the latter’s case included never broadly reopening schools (some elementary schools were allowed to reopen through a waiver granting process but high schools were ineligible), it is now California, not Florida, that is the epicenter of the surge. To answer Dr. Atlas’s question: yes, outcomes do matter.

Whether or not California’s surge is due to poor compliance with COVID restrictions has no bearing on the “effects on local economies, families and children” of which Dr. Atlas speaks. Why should business owners in need of customers and children in need of learning and socialization suffer because of the non-compliance of others? And why should lockdowns continue if their efficacy is far from certain and health officials themselves are unsure of the surge’s underlying cause? President Trump warned early on of the dangers of the harsh medicine of lockdowns. Dr. Atlas reiterated such warnings. California Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Eric Garcetti, both of whom were lavished with praise for locking down hard and early in March, seem incapable of pragmatic reassessment amid changing conditions. Without maligning their seemingly genuine intentions of saving lives, it’s worth asking—can the question even be asked in this hallowed land of orthodox progressivism?—whether this lockdown is working.

With an eye towards the future, the parallels between the lockdown left and progressive climate change policy are alarming. They include the following: deferral by elected officials to highly speculative projections of future harm espoused by unelected experts; the tendency to lump any degree of skepticism towards “expert” wisdom on the subject into the category of far-right knownothingism, silencing open debate in the process; and a nebulous, amorphous definition of policy victory measured as much by intentions as outcomes.

Climate change discussion on the left today is framed almost exclusively by the Intergovernmental Policy on Climate Change (IPCC) projection of climate catastrophe if global warming is not contained to 1.5 degrees celsius or less by the end of the century. Even the” moderate” President-elect Joe Biden has embraced the model and its apocalyptic projections. Does the IPCC projection not bear more than passing resemblance to the famous Imperial College Study predicting 2.2 million deaths in America from COVID? Who will be held accountable if the projections turn out to be inaccurate? How long must the policy be in place before its success, or lack thereof, can be measured? At what point will the (perceived) benefits be judiciously juxtaposed with the collective sacrifice of millions and fundamental restructuring of the economy? Will a Green New Deal realistically be called off if the temperature nonetheless rises above 1.5 degrees celsius? Will America be made to pay an ever-harsher price for the carbon sins of developing nations when temperatures continue to rise in the same way that outdoor dining and other forms of economic activity have fallen victim to the imperative to “send a message” to the bad actors still spreading COVID?

For those of you reading this and sensing right-wing hyperbole, you don’t have to look far into the future to see what I’m talking about. Only time will tell whether Governor Newsom’s outright ban on gas-powered vehicles by 2035 in California will be vindicated or condemned as political theater. What is certain is that Newsom’s executive order (notice here the democracy deficit; the people never directly voted for it) garnered far more attention than the humdrum skepticism of Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda when the Japanese government opted for a similar decree.

Even in a conservative newspaper like the Wall Street Journal, Toyoda’s eminently reasonable objections to phasing out gas vehicles entirely in the near future were relegated to the middle of the business section. Notable among them were his science-driven objections that Japan would run out of electricity before the summer if all vehicles were to become electric and that cars would potentially become a luxury item due to increased cost. “When politicians are out there saying, ‘Let’s get rid of all cars using gasoline,’ do they understand this?” Toyoda asked, according to the Journal.

It’s a good question that hasn’t been answered, and, like California lockdowns, by the time it is, it might already be too late. If California is any barometer, it’s much easier to double-down on good intentions and ideological purity than to acknowledge failure and right the course.

Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a PhD in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles area independent school.

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