We can forgive each other, but the powerful should be held accountable.
Forgiving a friend is different than forgiving Gavin Newsom.
Brown University Economist Emily Oster — who I deeply respect — has a piece out this morning encouraging forgiveness for actions and words over the past few years: “a pandemic amnesty.” And I do think Oster is right that, between friends and loved ones, we should strongly consider forgiving pandemic mistakes. At the same time, we absolutely need institutional and political accountability for our pandemic response.
Let’s use the Iraq War as an example. I suspect most Americans forgave friends and family members who thought Iraq had WMDs in a way that they were unwilling to forgive George W. Bush or, rest in peace, Donald Rumsfeld. And, of course, there were congressional hearings about the war. The media was also held accountable and The New York Times ultimately took responsibility for its problematic Iraq War reporting.
As we begin to think about forgiving our friends who refused to meet for a beer outside in spring 2020 — or, alternatively, friends who dismissed earnest fears about the virus — we simultaneously need to aggressively plan for institutional and political accountability. This is not a radical idea. Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Australia — government and civil society — have collectively produced many thousands of pages assessing their respective pandemic responses. And they didn’t mince words. Here’s a passage from Norway’s report on children and schools:
“To put it a little simply, we can say that children and young people are worse affected by restrictions than by infections and that there is a difference between what you miss out on over a year when you are 16 compared to when you are 46,” the report states.
It’s fair to say that U.S. school closures — which lasted as long as those in Brazil and Mexico in places like Los Angeles; San Francisco; Richmond, Virginia; and Clayton County, Georgia — were a social policy catastrophe. They were arguably the domestic policy equivalent of the Iraq War. A major mistake.
That said, in our big and complicated federal republic, different states — and different leaders — made different choices and those choices had major consequences for American children. Most public school students in California lost a year of formal schooling that children in Florida did not.