By Ryan McMaken
Last month, Colorado governor Jared Polis ended statewide mask mandates and social-distancing provisions, stating that “the emergency is over.” This, of course, does not mean Colorado is now laissez-faire in terms of covid. Public higher education institutions—thanks to Polis’ tacit approval—still have free rein in terms of imposing vaccine and mask mandates, and in forcing classes to “go online” whenever the college bureaucrats grow sufficiently alarmed about covid. Moreover, local officials were quick to react to the governor’s non-emergency by imposing a variety of mandates of their own. More than 80 percent of the state’s population still lives in counties with mask mandates.
For even this extremely mild and timid move in the direction of personal freedom, Polis was raked over the coals by the state’s left-of-center activists. Within days, The Sentinel, a newspaper out of Aurora, Colorado issued an unsigned editorial declaring “No, Gov. Polis, the pandemic emergency is not over.” The column excoriated the governor for daring to end mask mandates and for categorically refusing the idea of future lockdowns.
Perhaps predictably, the Colorado Association of Public Health Officials opposed the move, as did numerous county government officials. Many of these local health bureaucrats even demanded the statewide imposition of vaccine passports.
In the Colorado Sun, a Democratic Party activist and college professor has now published at least two columns attacking Polis for the lack of statewide mandates, employing words like “abominable … ignorant … callus” [sic] to describe Polis’s lack of commitment to imposing mandates.
Polis was also forced to walk back comments he made about how it’s not the job of health officials to “tell people what to wear” in an apparent reference to mask mandates. Polis rather unconvincingly “clarified” that what he really meant was this was not the proper role of state health officials; it’s fine for local officials to tell people what to wear.
The fact that Polis himself had earlier claimed this was, in fact, the role of health officials is now beside the point. Incoherence and inconsistency from politicians is a given. The point now is that when a governor—even a Democratic one—tries to slightly scale back covid mandates, he or she is likely to meet furious opposition from the Left.
This was acted out at the federal level as well. When the CDC reduced the recommended quarantine period for those who test positive, the CDC was denounced for allegedly being a tool of corporate interests worried about workers taking too many sick days. Supposed health experts also declared the change in policy “reckless.”
The lesson here is that no matter what the policy is, there will be no shortage of covid-obsessed college professors, politicians, and activists who will vehemently demand that more draconian policies be imposed immediately and everywhere. No moderation of any kind is to be tolerated.
Indeed, so many bureaucrats, politicians, and technocrats have doubled down on covid mandate maximalism, it’s difficult to see them ever letting go. We should expect them to search out new ways to extend current “health emergencies” indefinitely into the future by forever moving the goal posts and finding new diseases that justify continued mask mandates and social distancing rules.
Moving the Goal Posts
Back in January of 2021, Karol Markowicz at the New York Post warned that there are many out there who want the covid emergency state “to go on forever.” Nearly a year after the initial covid panic, when it was clear covid was not a civilization-ending disease and hardly “the plague of the century,” these technocrats were pushing for more masks and more isolation for children.
Much of this strategy has long been pushed through constant movement of the goal posts. While vaccines were initially being sold to the public as a cure-all that would allow everything to go back to “normal” this soon evolved into a series of explanations as to why vaccines actually changed nothing. Rather, vaccines might do some good, but the public should nonetheless be prepared to wear masks forever. Then they decided their “uniquely effective” vaccines were so effective that it was necessary to “protect the vaccinated from the unvaccinated.” Even lockdowns were still on the table into late 2021. The story was then changed to a narrative in which so long as every single child is not vaccinated, schools must remain closed, and everyone must remain masked.
Finding New Diseases to Fear
Mandate maximalists also began to hint that mask mandates might be necessary forever as a means of controlling other diseases as well. The narrative pivoted to one in which the social distancing mandates and mask mandates were preventing the flu. If covid-related mandates worked so well against the flu, why not keep the mandates forever? This position accomplishes two things at once: it sets the stage for keeping mask mandates forever while also setting up the flu as a perennial justification for a perennial health emergency.
These mandates might also come in handy whenever some new bird flu or swine flu crops up. Yes, earlier flu-based “emergencies” had failed to command widespread hysteria as with the swine flu scares of 1976 and 2009. But now the health bureaucrats finally had seized the authority they always wanted: keep emergency “pandemic powers” in place forever so that if the CDC or the WHO identifies a new “threat,” lockdowns, mask mandates, and vaccine passports can be forced upon the population until the “danger” is past.
Institute a Warning System
Another key challenge will be to keep the public always on the edge of alarm. On this, the mandate enthusiasts could take a page from the War on Terror propaganda employed in the wake of 9/11. In March 2002, the Bush administration instituted a color-coded terrorism threat advisory scale designed to indicate the terrorism “threat level.” This presumably allowed the public to gauge just how much they should be living in fear of terrorism at any given time. As propaganda it was helpful as a means of constantly reminding the public that the government keeps them safe, and that an all-powerful national security state is a necessity.
A similar scheme could easily be used to address health “threats.” Naturally, the scale would never be moved to “low” because if some actual epidemic did break out, that would make the “experts” look like they were asleep at the switch. So, naturally, the scale would always be at “guarded”—perhaps in the summertime—but would reliably be raised to “elevated” in the wintertime as hospital beds filled up with flu and pneumonia sufferers. Then, if any muttering of some new bird flu out of Asia hit the headlines, the technocrats could raise the threat level to “high.” This could then be used to justify the imposition of new mask mandates, vaccine requirements, or even lockdowns. Then when summer weather returned and the hospital beds emptied, the experts would insist they had prevented disaster by imposing new mandates.
And so on for years and years as the public becomes convinced that without government experts, the nation will be perpetually rife with death and disease.
Finally, the experts would get the esteem they so clearly believe they deserve. Perhaps even they could obtain the adulation showered on military personnel during the high times of the War on Terror—when American soldiers were busy losing two wars at once. Pro sports games will begin with a “salute to health care workers” who “keep us safe.” Indeed, many health care workers already act as prima donnas of this sort, complaining about how public protests over lockdowns were a “slap in the face” or staging walkouts to condescend to the public about how their “patience” with the unvaccinated is “running low.”
The only way these health experts will stop with their perpetual emergency is if they’re forced to. Health bureaucrats must be stripped of their far-too-expansive “emergency powers” and their agencies reined in. Their “scientific” opinions should be treated as the thinly-veiled political statements they so frequently are. As I wrote in 2020, the pandemic only ends when the public decides it is over.
Some politicians have figured out that it’s dangerous to keep pushing the same old covid mandates into election season this fall. This is surely why Polis now appears uninterested in haranguing the public about covid on a daily basis as he was doing back in 2020.
But the academics and technocrats who can afford to live in their echo chamber—thanks to taxpayer money—are unlikely to relent. They’ll be singing the same tune twenty years from now and calling for new mandates—for the disease du jour—every year. Let’s just hope that the world will have finally stopped listening.
Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first.
Image: Spiro Skouras
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