The United States has lost the war against COVID-19. Not because of science, but because we surrendered.
Our failure is rooted deeply in American culture. We’re a free people. We make free choices. In the case of COVID-19 and the available vaccines, our choice is either framed as a matter of this sacrosanct freedom, or alternatively framed as a gesture that promotes the public welfare. Each narrative evokes deep embers of fundamental American values. Are we, in this moment, destined to defend personal liberty as a fundamental American value above all others? Or are we as an American people committed in this moment to a cause of equal import — that of protecting our nation, of defending our nation, of accepting a cause greater than self?
We’ve each already made that decision for ourselves. It is the reason we now see such a great cultural divide. And it is no longer a divide of persuadable audiences, it is one of hardened positions. Our individual positions are now resolute, our convictions dogmatic, and our anger at the other now palpable. We have accepted that the values of freedom and sacrifice cannot coexist in this pandemic but instead must be pitted against each other.
As a result, the U.S. has lost a war we could have won. The nation will not reach herd immunity through vaccination. We may only reach immunity through a combination of vaccination and a level of community contraction sufficient to equip enough Americans with antibodies.
This path will unnecessarily take the health and lives of thousands of more Americans. It comes with great secondary risks as well — risks recently articulated by leading public health experts that a nation that fails to end the pandemic could see a new variant emerge for which we are unprepared, for which existing vaccinations provide no response, and a variant that again brings our domestic economy to the brink of collapse and our public health to a point of great suffering.
But freedom is a powerful drug. Politicians know that. It is why Governors and national leaders in both politics and media, almost exclusively Republican in their affiliation, have now forever framed their response in this moment as a defense of personal freedom. It is the strategy of their political and financial success — to ignore public health, but to defend personal freedom.
We should accept that these politicians will never pivot from this narrative. It would be the end of their careers. They will stay on the message of personal freedom, amplify it, and build it as a rallying cry for their sympathetic constituencies. It is the only road that leading Republicans can now take. There is no going back. They now look past the dead bodies and toward only their next election.
We therefore must recognize that our time is best spent not trying to persuade the unpersuadable, but now learning and preparing for what a nation looks like in which half its citizens remain unvaccinated. What is the public health forecast for a nation in that situation? How do we each protect ourselves and our loved ones? How do we gird for continuing culture wars and a destabilizing of our domestic economy? Pursuing those truths, rather than evangelizing to others about the cause of freedom or the good of society, must now be our focus.
In airline travel, passengers are briefed that in the event of an emergency, the smartest and safest response is to put on your own mask before assisting others. Now is the time to reach for your own mask, to protect yourself and your loved ones. It’s indeed an exercise of your fundamental personal freedom, but also a most patriotic commitment to putting country first.