the national interest

Zero COVID Risk Is the Wrong Standard

Photo: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

Oregon governor Kate Brown has been fighting to reopen the state’s schools, some 80 percent of which remain fully remote. Her efforts included providing schools with masks, testing, and ventilation, and giving teachers access to vaccines. Portland Association of Teachers president Elizabeth Thiel remained unmoved by these offers. “It landed a bit as a trap,” she told the New York Times. “It was, like, ‘We’re giving you the vaccine — now open schools for live instruction, no matter what.’ But these are life-and-death decisions that we need to get right.”

Thiel’s stance lies toward the extreme end of the spectrum, but it is hardly unique. Many teachers unions have insisted, in contradiction to the CDC’s official guidance, that schools should be reopened only when all teachers are vaccinated, and in some cases not even then.

The misalignment between the self-interest of teachers and the public interest certainly helps explain these decisions. Many cities and states have closed schools while opening bars and restaurants because bar and restaurant owners have a huge personal stake in accepting health risks, while teachers do not.

But union opposition is not the only reason why schools have remained closed. Public opinion has played a strong role. Polls find that Democrats, in particular, are much more hesitant than Republicans to resume in-person education, even though public-health authorities recommend doing so. Teachers are both influenced by, and an important influence upon, the broader universe of progressive opinion. (Democrats tend to defer to the authority of teachers just as Republicans defer to the authority of police, and most teachers are Democrats.)

Teachers are hesitant to accept even small risks because they share a belief system with many other Democrats. And that belief system — or at least the purist version of it that is coming to the fore as the end of the pandemic draws within sight — could be called Zeroism.

Zeroism is an inability to conceive of public-health measures in cost-benefit terms. The pandemic becomes an enemy that must be destroyed at all costs, and any compromise could lead to death and is therefore unacceptable.

Most of us know people who have come to think in these terms. It is in part a reaction to the science denial and willful indifference flaunted by the Trump administration, which lied about the virus’s scope and minimized its effects. Many people, especially Republicans, continue to insist not only on gathering indoors but refusing even to wear masks when doing so. Even modest precautions become reconceptualized as an intolerable infringement on personal freedom.

Zeroism is the opposite mentality — not equal and opposite, but opposite. Like denial, Zeroism refuses to grapple with trade-offs in practical terms, preferring instead to frame the question in pure moral terms. A classic example is the wave of media shaming of people who visited beaches last year, even though the risk of spread is tiny. These episodes allow people to redirect their anxiety into displays of personal virtue and contempt for those who flout newly established social norms.

One source of the Zeroist mentality is persistently confusing messages from public-health officials. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci points out in the Atlantic, the World Health Organization has communicated possibilities that were likely but not yet proven as though they couldn’t happen. Initially, this bias leaned in the direction of complacency, as when the WHO stated in January 2020 that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” Since then, it leaned toward alarmism. Later that month, Tufekci notes, it stated there was “currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” even though scientists strongly expected such protection would be demonstrated.

The same tendency has caused them to overstate the risk that vaccinated people can transmit the virus and understate the protections vaccines offer. These confusing messages have been compounded by alarmist wording in many news reports, which in turn has been compounded by a tendency for people predisposed toward alarmism to share the scariest-sounding headlines.

But in-person schooling is an area in which many liberals have remained hesitant even though authorities have managed to clearly communicate permission to resume normal activity. The nearly yearlong suspension of in-person schooling is exerting a toll the scale of which we can only begin to fathom. (Assessment tests conducted later this spring will provide some measure of the learning loss.) One paper estimates the economic costs alone will reduce economic output by a quarter of a percentage point a year for the next seven decades. A Washington Post story chronicles an epidemic of mental-health breakdowns suffered by teens who lost their primary access point for socializing with peers. Many of the poorest students with the least stable home lives — one analysis estimates the figure at around 3 million — never logged on or performed any schoolwork at all over the last year. Even those who will return to school when it resumes, which many surely won’t, have lost a year of education they’ll never recover.

Supporters of teachers unions have argued that the data about the effect of schooling on transmission remains unsettled, and that reopening schools might contribute a small amount to community spread. (One publication making these arguments, the consistently pro-union American Prospect*, does not disclose in its articles that it receives funding from teachers unions, a fact that would surely enrage leftists obsessed with ultra-fastidious disclosure requirements in education commentary.)

Under any sane calculation, whether school poses a small risk or an extremely small risk hardly matters, because the alternative is a social catastrophe that dwarfs any public health effect. That school districts are parsing the precise contours of the risk now is a testament to the power of Zeroism. Many unions have made demands like requiring 14 days of no community spread in order to return to school, or employed slogans (“Our health comes first”) which implicitly treat containing the virus as the only important factor in the school-opening decision.

Zeroism is a natural response to national or global trauma. The shock of 9/11 produced a form of Zeroist thinking, in which almost any burden — from war to airport screenings — could be justified because no risk of terrorism was tolerable. This was the explicit premise of Dick Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine,” which deemed even a 1-in-100 chance of a terrorist attack an unacceptable risk, justifying drastic action. Zeroism often expresses itself in claims that a policy choice comes down to “life or death.” Sometimes those aren’t the only two choices.

*Update: The Prospect’s editor says the magazine, which has recieved funding from the American Federation of Teachers, has not received any in the last year and that its donor list is out of date.

Zero COVID Risk Is the Wrong Standard