The Ollie Ollie Oxen Will Never Be Free: Learning to Live with COVID-19

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Nobody is quite sure where we got the curious phrase “ollie, ollie oxen free” — which children have used for centuries to indicate that the game of hide-and-seek is over and it is now safe to come out. It might be a corruption of some German phrase like alle, alle auch sind frei which means something like, “everyone is also free.” Or maybe it just goes back to somebody who had an ox named Ollie.

For the last two months, however, much of the world has been waiting for someone to shout “ollie, ollie oxen free” so we can come out from our homes and pick up where we left off. I like to imagine going right back to work and picking up conversations in mid-sentence. Everything will go back to the way it was before, and the two-month quarantine will be a memory that fades with time until we wonder whether or not it really happened.

It’s not going to happen.

This is not something that we can wait out. No amount of hiding is going to make it go away. The World Health Organization estimates that it will take five years just to get the virus under control — to make it one of a number of dangerous infections that crop up occasionally but do not pose an existential threat to entire populations. Educational organizations are now saying that strict social distancing measures will have to be in place for 18 months to two years.

Even the eventual vaccine will not produce an ollie-ollie-oxen-free moment. For one thing, it is not at all certain that COVID-19 antibodies provide long-term immunity, and if they don’t, vaccines will have limited utility. And even if we can develop a vaccine that conveys total immunity, nearly a quarter of Americans say they won’t accept it. Anti-vaccination propaganda has, for no particular reason, made the prospect of societal immunity doubtful.

The world has changed, and will continue to change, because COVID-19 has revealed important ways that world that was never safe to begin with.

This has happened before in many of our lifetimes. Anyone who traveled by plane before September 11, 2001 had a very different experience than people have today. We kept our belts and shoes on the whole time, for one thing, and we met people at the gate instead of the baggage circle. After a devastating terrorist attack, we changed the way that we travel, and those changes have now become permanent.

But most people don’t fly every day, so these changes have been relatively benign. The Pandemic of 2020 will change much more fundamental things about us: how we shop, how we go to school, how we work, and how we interact with friends and family members. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we are all potentially dangerous to each other. And it has shown us that “public health” actually matters.

Again, there are precedents. Sustained public health efforts can change behavior over long periods of time. In 1955, almost half of all American adults smoked cigarettes. In 2018, the number was 16%. Second-hand smoke and smoking-related illnesses have social and economic consequences. When people finally understood this, they through a combination of government regulation, advertising, and social pressure. Much the same thing happened with drunk driving fatalities, which fell dramatically between 1985 and 2010 for the same reasons.

These are not perfect analogs to COVID-19, but they do make two things crystal clear: 1) private behavior can have profound public consequences; and 2) public actions can make long-term changes in private behavior.

Both of these observations will be important in the post-COVID world. I am not sure what changes will be necessary to protect the public, but I know they will involve some constraints on individual behavior. These may include

  • Hand-washing/sanitizing and other hygienic requirements in public space

I have no doubt that measures like this will be highly controversial, bitterly partisan, and adopted more by social pressures than by government action. The political environment that we have created in the United States is simply not capable of taking or even accepting actions taken for the public good. And this is a pity. It means that we can never implement the Founding Fathers’ vision of a government that acts, however imperfectly, as a vehicle for the people to enact their collective vision of a good society.

For years, the stated objective of many Americans has been “to shrink the government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” It is very unlikely, though, that a government we can drown in a bathtub can protect us from a pandemic. This does not mean that our worlds will not change. But it does mean that it will require a lot more suffering and death to change the world through natural selection than it would if we had a functioning res publica dedicated to promoting the common good.

Written by

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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