The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine.
When passions run high we all know how easy it is to say things that make continuing conversations about important questions hard—even impossible. That happens in family relationships—and it has been happening more and more (and more) as a country.
“Pro-life” and “pro-choice” requires the existence of vile “anti-choice” and “anti-life” opponents. Those who question the prevailing views of sexuality are “bigots”—while those who question parts of the Black Lives Matter platform are “white supremacists.” Those with questions about climate change are “deniers”—and those who question vaccinations are “anti-vaxxers.” And, of course, those with concerns about respect for others are laughable “snowflakes.”
The effect of all this, of course, is to suppress disagreement and scare many with dissenting views into silence—with 62% of Americans admitting in a recent survey they have views they are afraid to openly share. Rather than going away, these concerns just go underground—often festering into something more noxious thanks to a forced rumination of even greater resentment and fear.
In recognition of the growing difficulty of holding space for hearing different views and in acknowledgment of the value of what David Blankenhorn has called “achieving disagreement,” several years ago we created in the Utah Chapter of the Village Square a series of documents called “Ten Ways that Thoughtful, Good-hearted People Disagree.” Initial drafts included explorations on “Policing & Public Safety,” “Gun rights/Gun control,” “Sexual Orientation & LGBT Rights,” and “Race Relations.”
Each reflected our best attempt to “map” existing key disagreements in these important conversations—doing our best to represent summary arguments on both sides in a fair light—with a request for additional feedback to improve the fairness and clarity of the write-up. While ascertaining the truth is obviously critical on all these issues, we held off from trying to make the ultimate case for one or the other position—feeling, instead, that simply helping create something that can potentially help support a better, more productive conversation would be enough of a contribution to that important aim.
Continuing this tradition, we have created a similar “map” of the prevailing COVID-19 back and forth. Our purpose, once more, has been to map out differences of opinion in a way that allows competing views to be debated and discussed. Although we work hard to represent each argument in its strongest possible light, once again, this is not about persuading or passing judgment on one side or the other; nor is it to suggest an equivalency between the different arguments.
As we’ve noted previously, passions run high in this matter of life-and-death—and for good reason. In this case, those with questions about prevailing views have increasingly felt shut down and silenced, often with accusations of suggesting it’s “just a hoax.” Yet as with most other important areas of conversation, many of us (on different sides of this question) believe there are legitimate questions to explore—and that a higher quality, more productive conversation would and could be help us all know how to navigate the complex waters ahead. We’re also persuaded that—yes—thoughtful, good-hearted Americans can and do reach different reasoned conclusions on this topic. Indeed, we ourselves, as members of the Public Square Editorial Team don’t see eye to eye on these questions—which was a great help in honing the language below. If you have feedback that could help make this better, fairer, clearer—we welcome your input!
- Medical Consensus. Do the experts agree about COVID-19?
- Essentially yes. While important questions remain, and new findings continue to come out, in many important questions, there is wide consensus. Many debates about medical findings found on social media are not in fact being debated much at all in the medical community.
- No. While there is a dominant view, there remains ongoing disagreement too often minimized and overlooked amidst a rhetoric of “all experts agree. ” In combination with restrictions on what is allowed to be shared in social media, this perception is being used in troubling ways to encourage compliance with recommendations.
- Lethality. Has the danger of COVID-19 been overstated at all?
- No, in fact, it has been understated. Threats of overburdened hospitals and repeat infections remain. Those who compare it to the flu are recklessly minimizing something that is a real and ongoing public threat.
- Yes. A great deal—and substantially beyond existing knowledge at certain points in time. After not initially accounting for people with mild or no symptoms who were not counted, we now know the true lethality is far lower than originally thought—and in the range of serious influenza.
- The lock-down. Was the initial shut-down necessary to flatten the curve and not overwhelm hospitals?
- Yes, it definitely was. Without the stay-at-home orders and business closures, the numbers would not have been kept under control. The lockdown measures kept infection rates at bay—with many lives saved.
- It’s not at all clear that it was. The combination of business closures and stay-at-home orders has had a lasting effect on the economy—while having only a debatable effect on virus transmission, especially long-term.
- The economy. Was appropriate attention paid to the economic consequences of the lock-down?
- Yes, since a functioning economy is based on people’s basic health, the best long-term approach to save the economy is to preserve health.
- No, there wasn’t. Economic concerns were consistently minimized—with those raising concerns accused of being “uncompassionate.” Far too little acknowledgment was given to the public health consequences of an economic downturn (emotional health, suicidality, global hunger, etc.).
- Sweden. One country famously took a different approach—with fewer restrictions and more confidence in natural immunity. How did it turn out for Sweden?
- Definitely not good. Herd immunity never took. In fact, it has performed the most poorly among European nations and has the worst statistics. Months old reports of success are now out of date, but continue to be shared.
- Surprisingly good—especially compared with other countries. By many measures, it has fared as well as other European nations with lockdowns—with success obscured by the fact it has contradicted so sharply the prevailing narrative.
- Natural immunity. Some have argued the natural immunity of the body is our best defense against the disease—and that we should trust the natural process more. Is that a reasonable argument to make?
- No. This exaggerates the potential protection natural immunity allows. And natural immunity may not develop with the coronavirus. Neither does it recognize how many people are too at risk to get the disease and develop natural immunity.
- Yes. There is far more protection available in natural immunity than many grant today—especially if public health officials would emphasize the value of protective lifestyle adjustments. Why this is being minimized is difficult to understand.
- Vaccination. What role will a future vaccine in development play in public health and economic stability?
- A crucial and central role. Without a vaccine, we won’t likely see either the stability or lasting healing society needs. Both the successful development and widespread usage of the vaccine are indispensable.
- Its role is being inflated and misrepresented—with potential risks downplayed and ignored. Especially at this speed of development, there will likely be short and long-term side effects that are only discovered later.
- The numbers. Are the numbers we continue hearing about case incidence and death counts reliable?
- Yes, they largely are—with CDC procedures for recording infectious disease deaths reliable. They also prevent overcounts. If anything, they are understated, as many people don’t seek treatment leading to under-reported numbers.
- Legitimate questions exist about false-positive tests and pressure to classify deaths by other causes as COVID-19—both of which make the official tally of the growing death count hard to have great confidence in.
- The White House. What role has President Trump’s administration played in the spread of COVID-19?
- Their inept response has allowed the virus to spread far more than it needed to. A more coherent, clear, and aggressive response would have led to a completely different outcome.
- They have navigated a difficult situation in balancing economic and public health considerations—while wisely preserving state rights to direct their own course. A different approach would not have likely substantively changed virus transmission.
- The rise. How should the rise in COVID-19 cases happening right now be understood?
- This is a preventable crisis that can be addressed with proven measures. It happened because public officials ignored research warnings and opened up prematurely. If we continue on this trajectory, many more deaths could result. It’s urgent to return to lock-down and physical distancing until the numbers decrease.
- This is what was expected—especially when the country reopened and as more people are being tested. Panicked calls for a renewed lock-down could be devastating for our economy while having only questionable effects on slowing an inevitable, long-term virus spread.
- Masks. How should we respond to suggestions to wear masks to prevent the further spread of COVID-19?
- It’s a step that is crucial and common-sense—reflecting medical consensus. Those not doing it are displaying a lack of sensitivity and compassion for those who could be protected by the simple act.
- It’s a step that is exaggerated in its effectiveness—and far from common-sense. Not all medical professionals or researchers agree—despite claims to the contrary. And there is evidence being overlooked for inadvertent consequences of widespread, uncritical dependence on masks.
- School openings. Is trying to open schools right now wise?
- No, it’s not. It would be too risky to allow children to come together amidst the rise in COVID cases.
- Yes, it is. Child-to-child transmission is extremely rare—and the economic burden of children at home through the fall will be too much for many families to bear.
- Freedom. Should we be concerned with restrictions in freedom of assembly and speech restrictions on social media?
- Not right now. Because both are essential to prevent the spread of the disease and disinformation so rampant right now. Providing accurate information is crucial – and pushing back against those who would spread false information as “factual.”
- Yes. Justifications for an erosion of civil liberties have been accepted too quickly. And censorship of dissenting voices on social media and Google makes a fair, full conversation hard to have. There is every expectation that those who resist a future vaccination will also be subject to considerable pressure and restrictions as well.
Note: As a way to maintain focus on the arguments themselves, we have chosen to avoid citing numbers or studies. As should be clear by now, both sides point to different studies in making their case about masks, Sweden, lethality, etc. A good aggregation of studies cited by those who support the prevailing public health response is here: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data#charts And a good aggregation of studies cited by those critical of the prevailing public health response is here: https://swprs.org/a-swiss-doctor-on-covid-19/