One of the mantras of the anti-mask, anti-vaxxer right wing’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic is that they’re not going to live in fear. (Except of masks and vaccines and whatever it is they’re arming themselves against with all those guns.) COVID-19 rates are rising? Whatever, they’re not going to live in fear. The virus is spreading among children? That’s life.

In many cases, this is purely partisan, the current most powerful expression of Republican identity, the 2021 equivalent of 2016’s “F#ck your feelings” shirt and “Lock her up” chant. In other cases, it’s coming from people who have long had to accept that society does not value their safety, on the job or in neighborhoods rendered unsafe by pollution or deteriorated infrastructure. To them, COVID-19 doesn’t necessarily look so different from the dangers they’ve always faced without anyone pretending to care. But there’s also a fairly steady stream of high-profile tut-tutting by prominent media figures explaining that, sure, COVID-19 is dangerous and vaccination is important but really it’s more cautious people who deserve a scolding.

This week brought us David Leonhardt’s deeply misleading “One in 5,000” piece in The New York Times, and then former Daily Kos diarist Nate Silver got going, wondering at length—and arguing his point—about why people are afraid of breakthrough infections, which, you know, probably won’t infect unvaccinated children in those people’s households. His answer: over-cautious liberals. Not, say, people refusing to change their behaviors as 26% of new COVID-19 cases are coming among children too young to be vaccinated, 6.5% of Mississippi’s public school students were quarantined, and there were 14,000 cases among Florida students the first week of school.

Gosh, let’s talk about why liberals are overly worried about breakthrough infections. That really seems like the big question here.

Whatever I think of the way Nate’s argument, which extended deep into replies, was framed—and believe me, I have thoughts about suggesting that the problem is infectious disease experts are causing people to be too concerned—there’s a broader problem in the discussion about how cautious to be if you’re vaccinated, and it’s not just him, as handy as he may be as the face of the phenomenon.

The “you should be less afraid” scolds tend to talk as if the twin poles are fear and not-fear, and as if the main thing anyone is afraid of is hospitalization or death. But the reality is so much more complicated.

The scolds tend to posit, as Nate did, that this fear of living life in all its grandeur is harming kids because social deprivation is as much of a problem as—is perhaps more of a problem than—contracting COVID-19 is for young children, for whom, we’re constantly told, it’s barely even a flu. But in reality adult caution can be in service of kids having the social and developmental opportunities they need, despite the scolds seeing anyone who doesn’t do things that they would do as over-cautious in a foolish and damaging way.

Just as schools would have been safer in fall 2020 if there had been more restrictions on adult entertainments, individual families can and often do make choices that will make it more likely that their kids can have something approximating “normal” lives. In my (extremely privileged) family, that means the adults don’t go indoor dining, but we regularly eat at restaurant patios with our son. The adults don’t go to the movies, but we regularly take him to the zoo (which is, after all, a 90% outdoor activity). He went to a camp with outdoor swimming lessons but, for now, we’re holding off on the indoor swimming lessons that are just resuming. Last year, pre-vaccine and when he was too young for public school anyway, he was in a small pod. This year, in one of the most-vaccinated states with robust anti-COVID policies in the schools, he will attend kindergarten.

We are making these decisions every damn day and then along come people to “well, actually” the decision-making process as if it were devoid of complexity. But, you know, reasonable people can disagree, in part because people’s circumstances are different and their risk calculations have different inputs. The fact that remote schooling has been taken away as an option for families who have more risk or more (valid) fear is a big problem that we’re not hearing so much about.

The scolds’ binary thinking obscures so many things families are afraid of. Yes, of course my child being gravely ill is the ultimate fear, but I recognize that it’s not the most likely outcome of COVID-19 exposure or even infection. We don’t know what long-term effects the virus may have for what percent of children, a question that never seems to register when parents are being mocked for not holding the equivalent of the chicken pox parties of yore, but even that isn’t all that’s going on in my mind as I consider the balance between keeping my kid safe from the virus and keeping his world big and bright.

Because you know what would also suck? Having to keep a very active 5-year-old in a three-bedroom condominium for 10 days while his friends play in the yard right outside our windows. That right there is a nightmare even though neither my husband nor I would face income loss as a result of having to stay home with him. An even worse nightmare is one of us having a breakthrough infection that left that person locked up in one room while the other had to provide food and other supplies for that person while parenting said very active 5-year-old solo.


We like restaurants a lot, but it’s really not a close call.

And never mind us. The scolds claim to care about social deprivation and learning loss and the developmental concerns of kids being out of school. If that’s the case, they should care about things that might cause classrooms or schools to close at unpredictable intervals, causing a loss of stability to every single child affected. Again: There’s that 6.5% of the kids in Mississippi’s public schools who have already quarantined. Who wants to step up and claim that’s less disruptive to their lives than wearing masks in school would be? (Well, okay, officials in Mississippi and a host of other Republican-controlled states and the asshats who do things like laugh while a kid talks about his dead grandmother.) But if constant, fear-inducing disruptions to the school year for a great many coupled with sickness for quite a few are something you want to prevent, then masking and other precautions are called for, in schools and elsewhere. Keeping community transmission low keeps kids safer, and that keeps them in school if keeping them in school is your top priority.

Nor are isolation and remote schooling the only traumas kids have faced. Nearly 50,000 children in the U.S. have lost a parent to COVID-19 and many more have had seriously ill parents. Having sick parents is decidedly a trauma for kids, as was brought home to me last spring. Early in the pandemic, as I’ve written, I had shingles. I was bedridden for about a week, during which my then-4-year-old seemed calm and brave. But nearly a year later, when his podmate’s dog died of cancer and I explained what cancer is, he asked if that’s what I’d had when I was in bed. He knew it wasn’t coronavirus, but even though it wasn’t the virus that had shaped a large proportion of his life, it registered on him seriously enough that the next time he heard about something else that someone in his life had died of, that’s where his mind went. Parents having to go into isolation because of a breakthrough case of the virus that has shaped 10% or 20% of a kid’s life is going to be a trauma, even if that doesn’t lead to hospitalization or death.

So, yeah. I realize that for a certain type of liberal-ish media figure, staking out ground as Not That Liberal by criticizing what they see as the foibles and irrationalities of those around them—while being a lot less invested in the disagreements with anti-vaxxers that they will then hold up to show that they’re sitting there in the center criticizing everyone—is awfully appealing. But perhaps if you find yourself lacking any sense that these decisions might be genuinely complicated, it should be cause for a moment of self-examination about your current analytical sharpness. After all, it’s been a long pandemic. Who hasn’t lost a step somewhere along the way?

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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