Isaiah Berlin, the 20th-century philosopher, spent much of his life arguing that we can’t have everything. Valuable values inevitably clash in every important social issue: freedom and equality, justice and mercy, impartiality and love. Such collisions, Berlin wrote, are “an intrinsic, unchanging element of human life,” and the attainment of some ends “must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others.” But he also argued that we can mitigate the effects of this “value pluralism.” Our goal should be to “maintain a precarious balance that prevents the occurrence of desperate situations and intolerable decisions – this is the first condition of a decent society.”
During the pandemic, few issues have crystallized the trade-offs we face like the disruptions to education have. More than a million children returned to New York City public schools that month. They joined students across the country starting the school year without a major for the first time since 2019 COVID Restrictions: no universal mask requirements, physical distancing protocols, mandatory quarantines, or distance learning. But they belong to a cohort that has experienced historic losses in educational achievement. Reading scores among nine-year-olds have fallen this year by the most in three decades, according to data from the Department of Education; Her math scores fell for the first time on record. These findings are particularly worrying given research showing that third grade skills have a critical impact on life outcomes, such as
Some of that decline was inevitable — the result of a century virus. But our decisions mattered. In the spring of 2020, nearly all American schools switched to distance learning to alleviate the worst of desperate situations — overcrowded hospitals, rationed ventilators, mass deaths. Since then, however, there have been huge disparities in how long and how often schools close their doors. The result is clear: the more time students spent remotely, the more their education suffered. Children in “high poverty schools” who spent most of 2021 in distance learning lost more than half a year of classes, according to an analysis by Harvard, the American Institutes for Research and NWEA. The effects were most devastating for black and Hispanic children and for those who were already struggling academically.
This was a compromise we chose – to pledge the quality of education to protect parents, teachers, communities and (to a lesser extent) children themselves from the coronavirus. Now the United States seems to have come to a different conclusion: the value of normalcy over caution. “COVID no longer controls our lives,” President Joe Biden said this month, and most Americans agree. In a recent poll examining which of fifteen issues voters consider most important ahead of the midterm elections, the coronavirus came in fifteenth. Even among Americans who describe themselves as “very liberal”—mostly COVID– Cautious political demographics – concerns about the coronavirus have greatly diminished. Last week, Gov. Kathy Hochul New York allowed COVID-19 phased out state of emergency. (Connecticut and Rhode Island are the only states in the Northeast with ongoing declarations of emergency.)
Part of this shift reflects a real reduction in the toll of the virus. With vaccines, boosters, antivirals, monoclonal antibodies, and more than eighty percent of Americans who have been infected, COVIDThe death rate has dropped significantly, and intensive care units that were once overcrowded with coronavirus patients are now treating a variety of pre-pandemic diseases. But much of it simply reflects the passage of time – a once novel threat receding into the background.
Due to a lack of congressional funding and a desire to get through the “acute emergency phase,” the Biden administration is playing a less central role in managing the pandemic. It recently halted a program that sent out free coronavirus tests, and soon it will stop paying for vaccines and treatments. Instead, these products are bought by insurers, who pass the cost on to consumers through higher premiums; People without insurance cover have to buy the products themselves. COVID will become just one of many diseases afflicting Americans – a fact that says more about our social and political choices than our medical reality. The US continues to suffer more than two thousand COVID deaths per week; it records more than sixty thousand new cases every day, and these represent a fraction of the true number of infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of the country has high or moderate spread of the virus, and many experts expect another one COVID surge this winter, possibly along with a brutal flu outbreak. (Australia, which often acts as a trailblazer for the US, just had its worst flu season in five years.) It’s now becoming increasingly clear that infections can have lasting health and economic impacts: according to one estimate COVID-related diseases have reduced the US workforce by half a million people. And many elderly and immunocompromised people remain at risk for serious illnesses even after vaccination.
Last month, the Food and Drug Administration approved a redesign of COVID vaccinations. The new “bivalent” boosters target both the original strain and the hyper-contagious Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5. The updated shots should theoretically provide better protection against the currently circulating versions of the virus, but since they were approved based on data in mice rather than humans – a decision that prioritizes speed over safety – it’s unclear how much benefit they have will make available in the real world. The White House signaled that going forward, Americans will likely only need an annual refresher aimed at the variant du jour; However, this recommendation appears to be based less on rigorous data and more on a desire to reassure a weary public.
For much of the pandemic COVID Discourse took on a strong political polarity. Conservatives advanced arguments rooted in liberty and autonomy; Liberals focused on health equity and community well-being. For better or worse, the two camps appear to have coalesced around a common understanding: the coronavirus is here to stay, and it’s up to individuals to decide how to live with it. But still there are no universal truths. The pluralism of values that Isaiah Berlin identified in societies is now seething in individuals. On some days, at some events, for some people the risk is worth it. Other times they don’t. These inner tensions are inescapable – an integral part of our own precarious balance. ♦