Politicians and bureaucrats are trying to control and even eliminate holiday gatherings. As a physician, however, I urge you to make your own responsible choices.
Not long ago, Americans wouldn’t have even considered the possibility of government agents entering their homes to cancel their Thanksgiving. Then came COVID-19. Gov. Cuomo has imposed a 10-person cap on New Yorkers’ Thanksgiving tables. Three-thousand miles away, the California Department of Public Health imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on millions of Golden Staters. Across the country, other politicians have mandated similar restrictions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released an extensive list of holiday recommendations, as well: no large gatherings, no singing, no loud music, no drinking alcohol, no in-person shopping.
This is a tyranny of the joyless and the irrational.
Yes, the novel coronavirus is very contagious with prolonged, close contact. Social gatherings pose a risk for transmitting and contracting the virus. However, for most people, the virus presents an insubstantial risk of serious illness.
Vulnerable individuals should limit contact with others, including avoiding holiday events. But for most of the population, Thanksgiving dinners don’t pose a significant risk.
These draconian holiday mandates are nothing new. They are a sad extension of a growing trend in American bureaucracy; regulators now feel empowered to go beyond informing the public to trying to dictate our most trivial decisions.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is pushing the Trump administration to crack down against alcohol consumption over the next few weeks by recommending that men limit themselves to no more than a single drink a day. The committee made this recommendation based on a single contrarian study’s findings, even though the vast majority of data and research it reviewed found that it is safe to engage in moderate drinking.
As Dr. H. Westley Clark, a former senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services, noted, the proposed change “is based on an inadequate and apparently biased analysis.” In other words, it is overreaching and makes little sense.
The notion that experts can shield the population from all health risks is quixotic and dangerous. Their attempted micromanagement of people’s lives under the guise of an emergency is downright alarming. Once such encroachments upon the citizenry’s liberty begin, restrictions on freedom become ever easier to impose during new crises of lesser and lesser magnitude; public-health agencies morph from trusted sources of information to agents of subjugation and oppression.
Trust between health officials and the public must be earned. Once squandered, it isn’t easily recovered. Nothing is more damaging to the country’s public health than the erosion of this trust. That’s why it is imperative that experts’ recommendations and edicts rest on firm medical and scientific footings and apply equally to all citizens — including public officials.
Health experts must understand that public-policy determinations are multifaceted and should encompass social, cultural, religious, legal and economic considerations. Even when solely confined to health issues, they should involve trade-offs.
Americans may soon have access to effective vaccines, perhaps in weeks. Mass immunization, in combination with partial or complete immunity, will allow society to return to normal. The lockdowns may soon become a distant and blurry bad memory. But there are lessons to be learned — and at the top is the need for accuracy, consistency, honesty and, above all, humility from experts and officials.
Roger D. Klein, MD, a former adviser to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies, is a faculty fellow at the Center for Law, Science & Innovation at Arizona State University.