Writing in The Atlantic this past week, Brown University economist Emily Oster did what she does best by using data and research to reassure parents. She made an obvious point: By the summer, adults will have been able to get vaccinated and the number of COVID-19 cases will likely be low. Thus, parents should feel okay about taking children on vacation even though the vaccine won’t be available for younger ages yet.
Given how low-risk children are of developing severe COVID-19, Oster advised that parents should view unvaccinated children as they would vaccinated grandparents. She wrote that, “the best available research indicates that families with young children don’t, in fact, have to live like it’s 2020 until 2022. Parents can go ahead and plan on barbecues and even vacations.”
Naturally, when the story was tweeted out, the mob pounced. Replies accused Oster of being a “monster” and said the article was “irresponsible” and “dangerous” — and that it could even get people killed.
She attempted to patiently respond to her critics, but of course, it was to no avail. Eventually she was forced to throw in the towel and announced, “I’ll be taking a break from Twitter for a week or two.”
Oster first gained notoriety for her book Expecting Better, in which she harnessed data to push back against decades of alarmism about what behaviors are risky during pregnancy. During the pandemic, she’s been indispensable in compiling data showing that opening schools does not increase spread of the coronavirus in communities. (Typically, the case load in schools has been about the same as, or less than, the surrounding community.)
The angry reaction to her latest completely reasonable article is another demonstration of just how distorted some people’s thinking has become during the pandemic. From the start, it was important to strike a balance between the risks associated with catching or spreading COVID-19 and the risks of sustained lockdowns and social isolation.
The availability of vaccines for adults has greatly reduced the risks stemming from the coronavirus, so there is much less reason to perpetuate an attitude that has deprived children of school, camp, playdates, sports, seeing their extended family, and vacations with their families.
No segment of the population has sacrificed more for this virus relative to their risk than children, and this has had serious emotional consequences for them.
It was one thing to argue that keeping them cooped up could save grandma. But when grandma has access to a vaccine that is virtually 100 percent effective at preventing hospitalization and death, then the calculus changes. Oster was simply explaining this new reality.