Dance Till We Die

Why Covid security theater failed
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Even as the war against Covid draws to an uneasy close, its skirmishes continue all around us. One of them is the ongoing irritant of Covid security theater.

The Coronavirus Pandemic
From the Special Series:

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Covid security theater is when we claim our actions are aimed at fighting Covid, but actually part of our motivation is just to give the impression that we’re fighting Covid. Genuinely fighting Covid may or may not be one of our goals too, but what makes theater theater is that performance is one of our goals.

So for the last year, we have worn masks in restaurants — unless we are sitting down. We have stayed six feet apart — whether we are running by on the sidewalk or sitting a table away inside for hours. We have stood behind plastic barriers at the DMV and the checkout counter — even though we know Covid floats in the air.

Many of these measures may linger for months, or conceivably years, past the end of the pandemic itself. The stink of absurdity will linger in our memories for longer.

Security theater is a visible everyday reminder that something in our country’s pandemic response went awry. Yet there is a way to see the idea of security theater as a sensible one, a recognition that the response to a pandemic must happen on a social and not just an individual level. We can imagine a theater that might have been, and that we might have been grateful for.

A Collective Response

With the behavioral rules American society settled on during Covid, a mind attuned to contradiction and rationalization could hear a cacophony enough to go mad. But of course, the standards of a prudent response could not have been those of a philosophy seminar. We were not dealing with falls from ladders or radon poisoning, threats that confront us at the individual level and can be answered in kind. Rather, the core task in stopping Covid was to prevent infection, a task inherently social in scope. Masking, distancing, crowd limits, even vaccinations: The benefit these tactics offer to any individual depends to a great degree on whether that individual’s group uses them.

Put another way, unlike, say, a decision about the best treatment to give a patient already infected, and to some extent even unlike preventing a difficult-to-transmit virus like HIV, stopping Covid was unavoidably a communal activity. Like it or not, this is the physical reality of highly contagious infections.

Responding to a threat at a group level is — with apologies for the analyst lingo — a collective action problem. Theater fulfills useful functions in responding to such a problem:

  • Theater reduces the burden of making sense of a constantly shifting, conflicting, and uncertain mass of information by coordinating decision-making, conveying a sense of “This is the way our country, our city, our school is handling this.”
  • For measures that work well only if most of the group opts in (like masking and distancing), theater ensures a quorum, showing that it’s worthwhile for individuals to participate because enough of the group is participating.
  • Theater offers solidarity: “You’re not bearing the burdens of these restrictions, and the pain of the virus, alone. We’re all in this together, we’re all doing our part.”
  • Theater simplifies permission structures, offering some sense of what is expected in social settings, what is allowed, and what is optional. This reduces the burdens of recreating social codes from scratch with each interaction.
  • In principle, theater can also set limits on the burdens we are not willing to bear. It can create collective permission to relinquish measures (like school closures) that could have some effect but are just too costly, and where the benefits of relinquishment can only be realized if most people agree to opt out.

The knocks against the phoniness of security theater are obvious. But there is such a thing as good theater — particularly once we recognize the performance involved in our response as a whole, in not just the actions we take but the ones we decide not to. Against a threat like Covid, good theater was needed.

Cutting Deals

What matters in a collective response is not achieving some perfectly consistent principle to order all behavior, but just whether the general program helps achieve good enough behavior — good enough to produce a significantly better outcome than if it were not present — while setting limits on itself and balancing against other considerations.

From this perspective, we should, for example, not feel bothered by the mild absurdity of wearing masks when we stand up in a restaurant but not when we sit down. We understand that there is an element of pretend here. We pretend that it’s totally safe to unmask when we sit down, and we pretend that masking for the twenty-foot trip from table to door is really accomplishing something. But this is an example of good theater — it’s part of an overall approach that helps achieve a better-than-the-alternative outcome while also cutting us some breaks.

A program of good Covid security theater would be eager to find these balances and bargains. Understanding that the budget for pain is limited, it would focus on just a few measures that hit the sweet spot of being pretty effective (true mass testing) or pretty easy (indoor cloth masking) or both (vaccinations, indoor N95 masking), while eagerly seeking to relinquish measures that achieve little (outdoor masking, beach shaming, restrictions even after vaccination) or that are simply so painful that beyond a certain point it’s not even worth debating whether they benefit the group (school closures).

Good Covid theater would be eager to cut deals: Instead of warning direly that even after mass vaccination we don’t know whether restrictions can go away, or vacillating behind talk of a “new normal,” it would hone a message of “getting most people vaccinated is the path to normal.” Instead of fretting about risks outdoors, it would eagerly seek out the evidence showing how poorly Covid transmits outside, and encourage going mask-free outdoors as a worthy way to balance the hassle of masking indoors. Instead of warning that we’re not absolutely certain that mass vaccination will completely eliminate all risk, it would recognize that in a world of mass vaccination, risk would by any sober estimate be vastly lower than in a world without, and it would accept whatever threat still remained as the price to pay to boost the incentive for mass vaccination now.

Wrong Priorities

But the Covid security theater we wound up with was mostly of a different kind. Let’s consider a few examples:

  • We have invested enormous cultural energy into shaming those who do not mask, and put little focus on how well the masks we choose actually work. Our answer to mask skeptics has not been “Let’s make sure everyone understands how much better N95 masks are, invest heavily in programs to mass-manufacture and distribute them, and then let ourselves off the hook about outdoor masking” but “If you don’t mask you’re a murderer.”
  • Surface cleaning, understood for the better part of a year to be of limited use, has remained key to signaling adherence to safety in restaurants, hotels, schools, and public transportation — often requiring shutting everything down to do so. Effective ventilation and air filtration, understood for just as long to likely be a powerful tool, and possibly easier and cheaper than constant cleaning, has largely been ignored in our discourse and in government guidance.
  • From January onward, key public health messengers voiced constant doubts about whether vaccination would do much of anything to lift restrictions. In April, Anthony Fauci fretted, “I don’t think I would — even if I’m vaccinated — go into an indoor, crowded place where people are not wearing masks.” Notable media figures, including Jonathan Capehart and Joy-Ann Reid, also said they would keep masking and would not resume normal activities after getting vaccinated. And as late as May, even the CDC recommended that people should continue wearing masks in most situations even after getting vaccinated.

This last example is worth lingering on. Covid vaccines, remarkably effective and created in record time, are as close as one gets in public affairs to a magic bullet, a once-in-a-generation technological solution to a grueling medical, economic, and political crisis. Yet we somehow wound up with public health influencers voicing more doubts about what vaccines would achieve than they ever did about masking and lockdowns. This is odd, to say the least. It is very much as if the Covid theater we got ultimately forgot that actually ending Covid was its aim.

What a Show

Here are a few ways to think about what went wrong with Covid security theater.

It has prioritized the visible over the invisible. It prefers measures we can see — surface cleaning, masking, distancing, lockdowns — where we can easily tell when they are being complied with or not. Our Covid theater is less interested in measures we can’t see, even ones that might be highly effective: HEPA filtration in central air systems, emphasizing N95s as highly preferable to cloth masks.

It has spoken in individual, not group, terms. We have heard: “Vaccination will protect you,” “Vaccination will protect those you care about,” and “You’re a selfish wingnut if you don’t get vaccinated.” The grounds on which individuals can, understandably enough, object to these messages are ample: What if I’m at low risk and all my high-risk loved ones are vaccinated? What if I just want to stick it to people who seem mostly interested in shaming me and telling me how to live?

What we too often didn’t hear when public health messengers explained why individuals should choose to get vaccinated was: “Vaccination is the way to bring the Covid era and all that goes with it to an end. Vaccination is what we must do to end the entire situation, and that means most of us need to do it.”

And yet it has been terrified of individual judgment. Despite stating risks and benefits in individualistic terms, our security theater has tended to offer rules that must be followed instead of rules of thumb to help people reduce risk to the group. Some of these rules have been useful, some probably not, some possibly even counterproductive.

Consider a simple rule of thumb that public health messaging could have offered that might have done a great deal to reduce risk to individuals and the group: Dodge the smoke. Because Covid floats in the air, imagine in which situations you would expect to get a high dose of secondhand smoke if people around you were smoking, and take actions to keep your dosage low.

Instead, we have gotten the six-foot rule, which takes no account whatsoever of crowd density, outdoor vs. indoor setting, wind and ventilation, or masking. It is probably pointless outside, and perhaps worse than pointless inside when it rationalizes people feeling safe sitting six feet apart for hours on end. But of course, rules of thumb depend on judgment rather than compliance, and offer no straightforward way to determine whether other people are following them.

It has justified itself with dubiously scientific rationalizations. Examples here are endless, but consider the shifting messaging on masks. There was always a compelling rationale for masking on the grounds of prudence, which went something like: “It probably helps at least a little, in some conditions it may help quite a lot, it’s far less of a burden than the other options on the table, so it’s worth making it part of our arsenal. But also, let’s fast-track research that will help us better understand how well it works, and emphasize that cloth-masking is a stopgap on the path to mass use of N95s, which we do know work very well.”

Instead, we got an interminable culture war over masking in general, over whether science already showed that it was magically effective or a complete hoax. The absolutism of masking advice was bad theater, fueling more opposition than it needed to.

It has created lock-in. Leaders could well have offered sensible shifts in prudential guidance as the pandemic progressed, based in part on changing conditions on the ground, in part on the public’s level of exhaustion, in part on evolving research. Instead, at each stage they had to create a narrative about “new science emerging.” Hence the absurd displays of the CDC being reliably months behind more sober-minded observers in shifting its advice on an array of issues — from adopting masking, to dropping the need for surface cleaning, to dropping the need for outdoor masking, to acknowledging that Covid transmits through air.

It has been all shaming and no bargaining, all stick and no carrot.

Must the Show Go On?

Perhaps this was all an inevitable consequence of the multi-layered disaster of January through April 2020. As the threat loomed larger, our leadership dithered and deflected for weeks and months, failing to ever find the focus to implement the truly targeted measures that would suppress the outbreak and prevent the demand for lockdowns.

Instead, we were left with half-measures, many of them grueling. A regime of high-filtration N95 masks, truly mass surveillance testing, and centralized filtration in building air-systems could have tolerated a high degree of individual noncompliance and still worked quite well. Cloth masking, distancing, and indoor capacity limits, being less effective, needed greater compliance to work.

Perversely, the weaker the measures under debate, and the lower the participation, the greater the apparent need for theater to enforce them. Not just sensible behavior in aggregate but Vigilance with a capital V became a social mandate. Once it seemed that the situation was out of control, that no one was in charge and by some accounts half of the country was so malevolent it could not be bothered, the one thing each of us could control was to show that we were not a member of the bad half. The mechanism that in a different time served as a force of civil cohesion — like victory gardens in World War II — instead became yet another force of civil derangement.

Listen to Anthony Fauci warn of all the ways vaccines won’t work and all the restrictions they won’t remove, to “I believe science” influencers solemnly intone that even after their shots they’ll be too scared to resume normal life — hear, in short, a public plea for vaccine fence-sitters to stay put. It is as if the Vigilant simply became entranced by the theater itself, forgot that the point was to end the show as soon as possible and made the goal to never let the curtain down.

One thinks of the arc of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, Alec Guinness’s character in The Bridge on the River Kwai. The commander of a British squadron imprisoned in Burma by the Japanese, Nicholson is tasked by his captors to build a bridge crucial to their supply line. Initially resistant, under brutal pressure to abandon the military order he holds most dear, Nicholson finally decides not only to reluctantly comply but to take eager charge of the construction. His aim is to maintain discipline, to remind the British that even in prison they are still soldiers. Understandably intent on keeping control of the one thing he can control — morale — Nicholson winds up collaborating with the enemy.

Ari Schulman, “Dance Till We Die,” The New Atlantis, Number 65, Summer 2021, 73–79.

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