After 2 years, progressives need to be a part of the debate around public health measures

Simply demanding that all measures to protect public health be brought to an end without crafting policies to do this safely is not only selfish but a recipe for further disaster.


On the January 21st episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, writer and former New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss explained that she’s “done with” Covid 19 to audience applause and the approval of the show’s host.  She followed up with a bit of misinformation about cloth masks, unequivocally claiming they, “don’t work”.

While such masks only offer at most a few minutes of protection to the wearer on their own and this varies depending on the material they are made from and how many layers they are, personal protection isn’t the main point of their use when making a quick trip to the convenience store.  Though it may be difficult for thinkers like Weiss to grasp, the reason we wear masks of any kind is to protect other people, just as others wear theirs to protect us.

Also, contrary to Weiss’ statement, any face covering, even a scarf, can limit the viral load that finds its way into one’s nose and mouth, making severe illness less likely for those exposed to it, especially for a short period of time.

For the past two years, most progressives in the English speaking world have bitten their tongues and allowed people like Weiss, Maher and far worse figures like Fox News hosts to control the non-medical, more political conversation around the pandemic, using their platforms to complain about minor inconveniences like masks.

While remaining silent on things we lacked the expertise to opine about and listening to the experts was the right approach for the progressive left early on, it ceded ground to those who, intentionally or not, spread misinformation and conspiracy theories that led to unnecessary sickness and deaths.

It seems like another life now, but in March of 2020 we didn’t even know how the novel coronavirus was being spread, vaccines seemed years away and the hope was that contact tracing, lockdowns and people voluntarily limiting social contacts would eliminate the disease altogether.Many experts recommended against wearing masks at this time, some perhaps half-heartedly to protect then limited supplies for healthcare settings.

As the omicron wave recedes, there are still many uncertainties about what’s coming next, but enough is known about the disease and its variants that there are obvious policy proposals that can limit its ability to upend life as it becomes endemic as many experts have foreseen. The left needs to be part of the conversation and start putting forward sensible policy ideas around the problems the pandemic has exposed.

The majority of the energy around the long running public health emergency is on the right and what they propose amounts to doing nothing to protect people in the name of individual ‘freedom’. Progressives should argue that the best way to end the cycle of crisis is through concrete policies.

In the interest of starting a conversation that could lead to other, better ideas, we’ll look at a couple of positive changes that are worth fighting for. These two proposals, if enacted, would have benefits that would long outlast the pandemic.

At the same time that many people, especially pundits in the business press, began demanding an end to mask mandates, they began insisting that schools reopen regardless of the risks to students and teachers. Rather than presenting the most obvious but somewhat expensive solution to both these issues, they insisted that the risks of sending people into unsafe environments were either negligible or worth it. In places like Chicago, teacher’s unions have been admonished by Republicans and centrist Democrats alike for trying to protect their members. 

Attacks on teachers in the United States (and to a lesser extent in Canada) over the past few months for asking for obvious things like more access to tests and remote learning when case counts are rising have shown how little they are valued, treated like warehouse workers tasked with minding children and adolescents rather than skilled educators.

It was clear that many of these voices from the political class and business community in the UK, Canada and the U.S. care less about the benefits of in person schooling than having parents return to their jobs. Few of these voices have pointed to one mitigation measure that could begin to address the risks posed by the return to in person learning.

Studies using carbon dioxide as a proxy for the virus have shown that with an air borne disease like Covid 19 we know that ventilation (and to a lesser extent smaller air filters) can greatly decrease the risk of infection.

It isn’t like there haven’t been two summer breaks when this work could have been started, especially in colder northern climes where windows usually remain closed most of the school year.

Putting proper ventilation in public spaces like schools should have happened long before this pandemic and would have many benefits after it ends.  These unsafe environments allow other viruses like the flu to circulate more easily and contribute to unnecessary illness and death, especially among the elderly and those whose immune systems are compromised.

While many progressive proposals struggle with the widespread belief that most things should be left up to the ‘free market’, it might be possible to get moderates and even the center right on board with this kind of spending if the messaging is done right. Whether its done at the federal, state or local level, undertaking to ventilate these buildings could also create well paid jobs.

Progressives in the English speaking democracies should also start a conversation around paid sick days. Those of us who have worked in hospitality and retail have probably worked while sick much more often than not. It wasn’t until the current health crisis that I even considered the danger I was exposing others to when I worked sick in these environments.

Some of this has to do with the low pay, making even taking one day off work financially ruinous. These workplaces are also often intentionally short staffed to maximize profit, putting further burdens on other employees if someone calls in sick.

Backing up this argument about paid sick leave in the Atlantic magazine was Hannah Matthews of the U.S. Center for Law and Social Policy who said, “The lack of guarantee to paid leave is the key missing public-health element in our response to the crisis.”

Most wealthy countries, including the U.S. through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, were able to find ways to allow people to quarantine when exposed to the novel coronavirus early on but have already pulled back on these emergency measures. In the American context, it’s been reported that allowing people to quarantine “prevented 400 cases per state per day”. 

As the champions of working people, progressives could add the fight for guaranteed sick days, whether covered by employers, government or a mixture of the two, to the ongoing struggle for a $15 minimum wage.

The cynical way that the right in the English speaking world (and much of Europe) have used opposition to public health measures and vaccine hesitancy to further stoke their already angry bases of support is disturbing. Simply demanding that all measures to protect public health be brought to an end without crafting policies to do this safely is not only selfish but a recipe for further disaster.


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