Governments are reintroducing mask mandates, and public-health experts are calling for more. Opponents of mandates and lockdowns are saying, as they did at the start of the pandemic, that liberty is being unjustly infringed and health fetishized.
But three things have changed since then, and all of them suggest that this time we should have a more libertarian response to the virus.
The vaccines are the most important change.
They have so far proved very effective against COVID, including against its Delta strain.
People who've been fully vaccinated are much less likely to come down with it, and much less likely to have severe symptoms if they do.
Too many media outlets are obscuring that point. "At least 125,000 fully vaccinated Americans tested positive for Covid," NBC News tweeted at the end of July.
Anyone who clicked through to the full story would see that it’s less than 0.08% of the fully vaccinated population — raising the question of why the number 125,000 deserved its own article in the first place. The percentage of vaccinated Americans with severe Covid cases, based on Centers for Disease Control data through July 26, is 0.003%.
Ari Schulman, the editor of the New Atlantis, a journal about the effects of science and technology, put it this way over email, "Vaccines fundamentally changed the game; Delta has not fundamentally changed it back."
After all, vaccination rates among senior citizens, the age group at worst risk from Covid, are high. The CDC reports that 90% of them have received at least one dose of the vaccine and 80% are fully vaccinated.
Children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated, but are at very low risk.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that in the 43 states providing figures, fatality rates among children with Covid were 0.00-0.03% through the end of July.
The risks COVID poses now are overwhelmingly concentrated among people who have chosen not to get vaccinated. We shouldn’t be indifferent to their fate.
If a full approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the vaccines will encourage more people to get the shots, it should by all means be expedited.
But there has to be a limit on how much we ask everyone else to do for the unvaccinated. Our policies can’t just be the same as they were before highly effective vaccines were widely available.
In addition to having the vaccines, we have 17 months of evidence about the effects of mask mandates and lockdowns. That evidence suggests that people have changed their behavior voluntarily, in response to the perceived risk of infection, more than they have in compliance with governmental edicts.
One study found, for example, that while mass mask-wearing reduced COVID transmission, rates of mask-wearing didn’t correlate with the presence or absence of mask mandates.
That doesn’t mean that none of these orders did any good.
But it does mean that our sense of their benefits and their urgency should be reduced.
Another change since the start of the pandemic should also affect how we respond to the delta variant: We’ve gone through those 17 exhausting months. What may have been necessary as an emergency measure is intolerable on a permanent basis.
If the current level of danger is all it takes for governments to impose mask requirements and for normal life to be suspended, then we are on the verge of declaring a forever war against the virus — and of making an irreversible alteration in the relationship between our society and our government.
The dangers could of course grow.
A mutation could subvert the vaccines, for example.
In that case, more coercion might be called for.
Even then, though, it would be necessary to spell out, in advance, what conditions would bring about the end of any restrictions.
But let’s hope that delta subsides quickly and it doesn’t come to that.
We should hope so for many reasons.
Among them is that even if, heaven forbid, the death toll rises to 2020 levels, we’re probably not going to put up with a return of the Covid regime we had then.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life." Read Ramesh Ponnuru's Reports — More Here.