Dance Till We Die: Why Covid Security Theater Failed

Even as the war against Covid draws to an uneasy close, its skirmishes continue all around us. One of them is the ongoing irritant of Covid security theater.

Covid security theater is when we claim our actions are aimed at fighting Covid, but actually part of our motivation is just to give the impression that we’re fighting Covid. Genuinely fighting Covid may or may not be one of our goals too, but what makes theater theater is that performance is one of our goals.

So for the last year, we have worn masks in restaurants — unless we are sitting down. We have stayed six feet apart — whether we are running by on the sidewalk or sitting a table away inside for hours. We have stood behind plastic barriers at the DMV and the checkout counter — even though we know Covid floats in the air.

Many of these measures may linger for months, or conceivably years, past the end of the pandemic itself. The stink of absurdity will linger in our memories for longer.

Security theater is a visible everyday reminder that something in our country’s pandemic response went awry. Yet there is a way to see the idea of security theater as a sensible one, a recognition that the response to a pandemic must happen on a social and not just an individual level. We can imagine a theater that might have been, and that we might have been grateful for.

A Collective Response

With the behavioral rules American society settled on during Covid, a mind attuned to contradiction and rationalization could hear a cacophony enough to go mad. But of course, the standards of a prudent response could not have been those of a philosophy seminar. We were not dealing with falls from ladders or radon poisoning, threats that confront us at the individual level and can be answered in kind. Rather, the core task in stopping Covid was to prevent infection, a task inherently social in scope. Masking, distancing, crowd limits, even vaccinations: The benefit these tactics offer to any individual depends to a great degree on whether that individual’s group uses them.

Put another way, unlike, say, a decision about the best treatment to give a patient already infected, and to some extent even unlike preventing a difficult-to-transmit virus like HIV, stopping Covid was unavoidably a communal activity. Like it or not, this is the physical reality of highly contagious infections.

Responding to a threat at a group level is — with apologies for the analyst lingo — a collective action problem. Theater fulfills useful functions in responding to such a problem:

Theater reduces the burden of making sense of a constantly shifting, conflicting, and uncertain mass of information by coordinating decision-making, conveying a sense of “This is the way our country, our city, our school is handling this.”
For measures that work well only if most of the group opts in (like masking and distancing), theater ensures a quorum, showing that it’s worthwhile for individuals to participate because enough of the group is participating.
Theater offers solidarity: “You’re not bearing the burdens of these restrictions, and the pain of the virus, alone. We’re all in this together, we’re all doing our part.”
Theater simplifies permission structures, offering some sense of what is expected in social settings, what is allowed, and what is optional. This reduces the burdens of recreating social codes from scratch with each interaction.
In principle, theater can also set limits on the burdens we are not willing to bear. It can create collective permission to relinquish measures (like school closures) that could have some effect but are just too costly, and where the benefits of relinquishment can only be realized if most people agree to opt out.

The knocks against the phoniness of security theater are obvious. But there is such a thing as good theater — particularly once we recognize the performance involved in our response as a whole, in not just the actions we take but the ones we decide not to. Against a threat like Covid, good theater was needed.

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