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Should we declare a pandemic amnesty?


Early in the pandemic, April 2020, Emily Oster and her family went for a hike. They were wearing cloth masks she had sewn herself.

EMILY OSTER: My husband had one with, like, Halloween fabric, you know, held on by, like, old elastics that we had found downstairs.

KELLY: And as they walked the trail, her 4-year-old son encountered another 4-year-old.

OSTER: And she got, you know, what my son viewed was perhaps a little too close. And he looked at her, and he shouted, social distancing.

KELLY: Oster is an economist at Brown University who works on public health policy. She shares that hiking story in a new piece for The Atlantic, headlined "Let's Declare A Pandemic Amnesty." And she told me she wrote about the hike to illustrate the complete uncertainty of that moment in the pandemic.

OSTER: We were all trying to do the thing that we thought was best - that we thought was best for our families, that we thought was best for society - in a world of basically no information, of just tremendous uncertainty. And that led people to do different things, but not because they knew anything. That led us to do different things because we were just trying to do our best in the face of missing facts.

KELLY: You write that some of our choices turned out better than others - like what?

OSTER: So some of our choices, I think, turned out to be reflective of the virus. So for example, there was some emphasis on ventilation - on opening the windows. And it turned out that that actually is a good way to lower the risk of transmitting COVID. And then there were other things, like staying 6 feet apart from people when you're outside or closing beaches or closing bike paths - many things that closed off what we were doing outdoors, which turned out, ex post, to be a mistake and to not have high COVID risks.

KELLY: One of the decisions that was a lightning rod then and remains a lightning rod now was schools closing - whether they should close, how long they should stay closed, when they should reopen. You, at the time, waded right into the middle of that with an argument that schools should reopen, and you were roundly attacked for it - people accusing you of putting kids and teachers at risk. With the benefit of hindsight, what did you get right and wrong during the pandemic?

OSTER: So I advocated for parents and for open schools in the fall of 2020. And I think that, when we look back at that period, many people have now concluded that schools should have been more open than they were and that the costs to our kids were very high. In fact, the COVID risks from school were quite low. So I think I was right. I was right about that. But there were plenty of things that, like everyone, I didn't have everything right on.

So, you know, for example, like everyone else in March of 2021, I thought that vaccines would protect us from any infection. That was the kind of line that we were getting from the sort of details of the trials - that it looked like vaccines were very protective against any infection. And then, as there were changes in variants, that turned out to be less true. And so again, it's an example of a place where there was uncertainty. We made the best choices we could in the face of the moment of uncertainty. And different people made different choices, and we learned more as time went on.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, the central argument in this piece, as I read it, was for grace, was for a little bit of humility and forgiving one another for what we got right and what we got wrong when we just didn't know that much about COVID. Let me let you elaborate on that. What's the case that you're making here?

OSTER: The case that I'm making is one for grace, but it is also one for recognition that the pandemic has created a tremendous number of problems that we still need to solve. And at the moment, I see a lot of rehashing of these questions of exactly what we got right and we got it wrong in these very uncertain times. I think that that is getting in the way of our ability to move forward.

So if we take the example of kids, we see, you know, historic declines in student test scores, historic declines in routine vaccination rates. Putting aside the COVID vaccinations, we have historic declines in the vaccination rates for things like measles and pertussis. Those are issues for parents. They are issues for policy that we need to move together to solve. And I'm worried - and this is, I think, the central point of the piece - I'm worried that, by continuing to litigate whether one person was right or another person was right in this face of uncertainty, we are getting in the way of our ability to do this moving forward, and we are losing daylight on getting our kids back on track.

KELLY: So a lot of people listening may be thinking, hang on, you know, it would be nice to just forgive and all move on. That would be great and noble. But what about accountability? I mean, what do you say to people who got really sick or maybe lost someone to COVID who say, look; my life was really messed up during the pandemic because we got bad advice from public health officials, from politicians, from parts of the media?

OSTER: Yeah. I really hear, and I've particularly heard in the last few days, people who say, you know, I want accountability. I want to be able to have an apology. And there probably is space for some of that. But it is also true that we can have that accountability, and then we can say that there is grace to move on.

KELLY: You said you've heard, in the last few days, people pushing back. I guess it's not lost on you - the irony. You've published this essay that's calling for grace, that's calling for forgiveness, and it's got people all riled up again, writing and tweeting that it's the wrong message, that we can't just get over it.

OSTER: Yes. That has not been lost on me. You know, I think that there's a message that, you know, maybe not everybody is ready for this. And in some ways, what I hope, when people calm down a bit after reading it, is that they will get to start to think about this and start to think about, well, I'm not ready for this now. Well, maybe you will be ready for it at some point not so far from now. And that's something that we can work towards so we can try to solve some of these problems that we still have.

KELLY: I want to note that some people did get it wrong. Some people made wildly irresponsible claims during the pandemic. The idea, for example, that anyone should inject Clorox into their body to kill the virus was wrong then. It is wrong now. You're not arguing for blanket amnesty - is that right? - for people who trafficked in misinformation?

OSTER: Absolutely not. So I'm not arguing for blanket amnesty for people who trafficked in misinformation. I think there was misinformation on both sides, actually, that does not deserve amnesty, that needs accountability. But within the range of the choices people made, there are reasonable people on both sides.

And I will say, also, I am not arguing against the idea of apologies. I think there were mistakes made, even if they were honest mistakes. And we should be able to say, I'm sorry. That wasn't the right choice in the moment. And I read the best data that I could, but it wasn't right. And I am sorry that I got that wrong. I think there's a real inability for people to apologize, and we probably all could afford to both give and hear more apologies in this moment.

KELLY: Well, you have the stage. You have the floor. To the people who have attacked you, you know, during the pandemic and right up through this week, what do you want to say to them?

OSTER: I think that what I would like to say is that I hear this anger and that I hope that we can move past it and that I hold some of this anger. But also, I am trying to move past it. And I think that there is a better place on the other side. And maybe that's naive, but that's still what I would like to believe.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Emily Oster of Brown University. Her piece for The Atlantic is titled "Let's Declare A Pandemic Amnesty." Emily Oster, thank you.

OSTER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mia Venkat
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Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.