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The omicron variant is another excuse for government meddling
President Joe Biden announced a series of COVID-19 protocols on Thursday to combat the new omicron variant. The protocols will do little to promote health, but that's not their intent anyway. Instead, these regulations condition Americans to tolerate continued governmental intrusions in our lives as they chip away at our freedoms on the false promise of safety.
Biden had banned travel from South Africa, where the omicron variant was first detected, and seven other southern African countries (remember when such bans were racist?) prior to the measures announced Thursday. The newly announced requirements include extending the federal mask mandate on public transport, including airplanes, until mid-March and requiring international travelers to the United States, including vaccinated U.S. citizens, to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken a day before departure.
These measures will not prevent the new variant from spreading through the United States. On Monday the president himself admitted that "[T]ravel restrictions can slow the speed of omicron, it cannot prevent it. But here's what it does: It gives us time. It gives us time to take more actions, to move quicker, to make sure people understand you have to get your vaccine."
Really? That's about as believable as "15 days to flatten the curve" 21 months later.
How does extending a mask mandate until mid-March buy more time? The existing mask mandate was not set to expire until Jan. 18. The first case of the omicron variant was already detected in the United States by the time of Biden's announcements. If a mask mandate on airplanes could slow the spread, the existing mandate would give six additional weeks to "take more actions."
Promoting vaccinations is a major theme of the actions Biden wants to take. However, his change in testing requirements undermines the promotion of vaccination. Previously, unvaccinated U.S. citizens had to receive a negative COVID-19 test the day before flights to the United States, while vaccinated citizens could test up to 72 hours prior to departure. Now all citizens, regardless of vaccination status, have to test a day before departure.
I just returned from two international trips. I was by myself on the first, but I was traveling with my not-yet-fully-vaccinated child on the second. It's more of a hassle to get tested the day before departure than when you have a few days to fit it into your schedule. Taking away that flexibility for the vaccinated will cause fewer people, on the margin, to see a net benefit in getting vaccinated. I know the expectation of easier travel factored into my own decision to get vaccinated.
These latest policies are not about slowing the spread of the omicron variant in the United States. They are about extending the power of politicians and health bureaucrats to make arbitrary dictates into our lives and infringe our freedoms.
More than 100 years ago the great journalist and pundit H.L. Menken observed that the "whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary." The threat of terrorism served that purpose for the last 20 years, and we still tolerate removing our shoes at airports and limiting liquids to three ounces as a result.
The politicians and health bureaucrats will use each new variant of COVID-19 to keep us alarmed and infringe our freedom until we become accustomed to and passively accept these infringements - if we let them. Enough is enough. It's time to demand the freedom for people, and the businesses that serve them, to determine for themselves which health precautions they would like to take and which hassles they'd rather avoid.
Benjamin Powell, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, Oakland, Calif., is director of the Free Market Institute and a professor of economics at Texas Tech University.