What Each Side of the COVID-19 Debate Should Understand About the Other

I’m very conscious that my lockdown experience has been fairly smooth. I’m teaching two classes right now, versions of which I have already taught online. At home, my nuclear family is getting restless and bored, but we’re busy and productive. Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk with my son in our quiet little suburb. That evening, my daughter asked us all to sit down and watch Spirited Away as a family.

I’m what Brian Doherty would call a “Closer.” I miss seeing my students… but I don’t want to endanger their health when I can teach them online. I miss seeing live theater and participating in the rituals of my church… but I’m perfectly willing to mask up and hunker down for as long as the medical experts feel it’s necessary.

Reading Doherty’s article helped me to understand the mindset of the “Opener,” who sees things very differently. Openers don’t want more people to die; but they rightly note that our world is full of health risks that governments manage in ways other than shutting down society to prevent as many deaths as possible.

Beyond its devastating effect on the health of hundreds of thousands and the livelihood of millions, the COVID-19 crisis is a harshly vivid example of Americans’ inability to understand, fruitfully communicate with, or show a hint of respect for those seen to be on other side of an ideological line.


To sum up each side in the language of their angriest opponents: The “Closers” want to demolish nearly all Americans’ ability to live, and destroy nearly all the wealth our society has built up over decades, by halting the wheels of most commerce for the forseeable future. And the “Openers” are so dedicated to keeping GDP growing and so ignorant of science they want to see hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Americans die of a hideous disease because they don’t understand how contagion works.

Both Closers and Openers, though, have a combination of reasons, theories, guesses, and value judgments of a sort many sane people have always made, that make their respective positions make sense to them. Neither side should be blithely written off as either idiotic or sinister or not thinking, in their own way, of human well-being.


Openers are worried about over 15 million Americans out of work, and look at industries including hospitalityfood serviceentertainment not beamed in via smart TVs, sportsconstructionoileducationlaw, and even, counterintuitively, medical care (not to mention all non-food retail and any financial or other entities who depend on rents and mortgages continuing to be paid in the months to come) all either destroyed or seriously weakened and unable to move forward at anything near their old strength.


The Closers, meanwhile, are seen by hostile Openers as driven by some sinister desire for a scenario in which the only “reasonable” endgame for living anything like a free life is either or both enforced vaccination and constant registered surveillance, or who for partisan political reasons want to make 2020 so miserable in America that Trump will lose the election.

However, the Closers have many reasons that make sense to them to keep things closed that don’t involve a mad desire to tyrannize the country or harm Trump. Closers see and acknowledge the economic damage we are suffering, but see most of that damage already inherent in the unchecked spread of a disease that kills or seriously harms people to a greater extent than any we’ve dealt with in a century. They thus don’t see the economic problems solvable just by “opening up America.”


Closers are also sure that we can’t know how much damage COVID-19 will eventually cause in our nation just based on the experience of the past 6 weeks, when we have been doing our best to keep people from getting close enough to each other in large enough numbers to truly and quickly unleash COVID-19. Thus to the Closers, any calculations based on “existing data” that are supposed to settle the question of whether we’ve done enough, or even too much, and can now “open up” are beside the point, in a genuinely dangerous way. If it’s not an intolerable nightmare yet, they would say, that’s because we are staying shut down.