But as we come to an end, we have a lot of tough questions to ask. Were our interventions any good? Some of the incoming data is enough to make you wonder about any human plans. Texas opening, dropping mask mandates, and allowing a packed Opening Day of baseball was associated with no increase in COVID — a decrease continued apace. It was also associated with no serious economic or employment benefit. The CDC’s own 2020 study of mask mandates claimed a “statistically significant” result in their favor; it was less than 2 percent. And the study didn’t even do a great job of assessing all the factors that go into spread.
If U.S. pharmaceutical companies, with their foreign partners, hadn’t produced massive amounts of massively effective vaccines, how would the pandemic have ended? At a certain point, a kind of existing pandemic investment seemed to determine the rest of this era’s course. We had settled on a strategy of haphazard and not strictly enforced closures and distancing. Limiting, but not closing, travel. Declaring this strategy an outright failure, or just abandoning it as too psychologically and economically costly, would have been too painful. We probably needed the vaccines to rescue us from the sunk-cost fallacy.
Is public health just fake? The World Health Organization spent the early part of the pandemic trying not to embarrass China. Then it said that open borders would help us fight the disease. All public-health bodies outside of Taiwan and Hong Kong seemed to disfavor travel restrictions. By September, it was safe for the New York Times to point out that this disfavor had nothing to do with epidemiology, it just reflected the overwhelming political ideals of public-health officials who are dominated by progressives.