This month marks the three-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 shutdown. It is surreal to look back at the early days of the pandemic. The shift from normal life to the setting of a dystopian novel was swift and jarring, and the amount we didn’t know about the disease was staggering. 

There are things we know today that certainly would have been helpful back then. You won’t get COVID from forgetting to give an Amazon package a bleach wipedown. It is safe, even advisable, to go outside for some exercise. There is no reason to hoard toilet paper.

Many of these behaviors came from real and understandable fear as this novel virus ravaged the nation and left us with far more questions than answers. Behind the scenes, scientists and public health officials worked around the clock to understand what made the virus tick and how we could protect ourselves against it. Knowledge evolved quickly.

People did their best to evolve to new information as it became available. They made personal choices about interacting with friends and family, travel, and even work. They made decisions after calculating their risk and comfort level along with their needs for income, social interaction, childcare, and, yes, social validation. It’s a calculation process humans engage in constantly.

As Americans figured out their best personal path forward with each new discovery about COVID, people started noticing that official government guidance didn’t quite follow the information available or shifted rapidly with little explanation but a clear political bent. Social gatherings of more than 10 people were dangerous unless they were to protest an injustice. Schools could safely reopen until guidance abruptly changed to match the perspective that it was irresponsible to return without complete vaccination. Gatherings for religious services were held to different standards than restaurants, liquor stores and many other types of business. As scientific data and government mandates conflicted, people began to lose faith that our leaders acted in the best interest of anything other than their political ambitions.

A recent State Policy Network State Voices poll shows those feelings have persisted years after the initial lockdowns. More voters lost trust in the federal government than gained trust due to its handling of COVID-19 (36 percent compared to 25 percent). Among political independents who may have been able to avoid the tribalism of COVID policy, 38 percent have less trust in the federal government compared to just 14 percent that gained confidence in Washington during the pandemic.

It would have been impossible for the government to know in the spring of 2020 what we know now — so there must be some room for grace. But to earn that grace, our leaders must acknowledge their mistakes and evolve their policies. While some individuals acknowledged they did their best but were wrong, many refuse to acknowledge any errors or continue pushing policy clearly out of line with scientific knowledge. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend wearing masks despite research showing they have minimal effectiveness even if worn correctly (which isn’t typically the case). Six states are still under a formal State of Emergency with no expiration date. A new study confirmed what we knew back in 2021: that natural immunity to COVID is real and offers substantial protection, calling into question the need for vaccine mandates.

The inability to acknowledge mistakes and correct formal guidelines is not harmless politics as usual — it contributes to the low and still declining trust in government and will make it harder to persuade people to follow official advice in future crises.

Officials and administrations sweeping their past policies under the rug or leaving them in perpetuity to avoid embarrassment or appease a political base are trading the long-term health of our societal institutions to save face.