Security Theater in McCabe Library

The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of The Phoenix Editorial Board. 

Why, in the name of Anthony Fauci, is McCabe Library quarantining books? 

In my first week back on campus, I stopped by McCabe to pick up a few books I had requested from Haverford’s Lutnick Library. The librarian on duty politely informed me that the books had actually been at Swarthmore for two days beforehand — but they had been placed in quarantine.

I resisted the unkind urge to ask if the reason for the books’ sequestration was that they had arrived dusted in anthrax, or maybe low-grade plutonium. Surely the libraries weren’t concerned about me getting COVID from a book that had likely been sitting unopened in Haverford’s stacks for years? 

Surely, after a year of living through a nightmarish pandemic, where understanding how the disease does and does not spread is at the forefront of literally every person’s mind, we’ve learned that wiping down objects with disinfectants is more than enough to prevent fomite transmission? 

It’s a rhetorical question. Of course we haven’t. 

This isn’t really to blame Swarthmore librarians — we should blame whoever in administration is setting sanitation policy. And erring far on the side of caution is, of course, an eminently understandable response to a pandemic that has killed millions worldwide, especially when it concerns low-cost (if tedious for staff) interventions like wiping down tables constantly.

But the Swarthmore libraries (really the college administration who tells them what to do), like so many other American institutions, seem to have learned very little about coronavirus since March and April of 2020. The disease is thoroughly airborne — spreading through long-lingering aerosol droplets as well as respiratory droplets — and “surface spread” is a marginal factor at worst. 

Nature reports that of the hundreds of scientific studies that examined COVID-19’s transmission dynamics, only two found any kind of surface transmission. In the first, a person blew their nose with their hand and then touched an elevator button. The next person to touch the button then cleaned their teeth with a toothpick. In the second, eight people walked through COVID-contaminated sewage and then tracked it into their homes. That’s it.

But my discovery in McCabe — and I am sure many other Swatties can tell their own stories of rules that make no sense — is not just based on misconceptions about a specific disease. It’s actually a manifestation of an old American phenomenon: “security theater.”

Meant to describe ostentatiously complex safety procedures that do little good, the term came into use after the 9/11 attacks, as airlines and airports scrambled to implement security measures to prevent future hijackings. Forcing people to remove  belts and shoes, invasively patting downelderly people and children, and the constant pulling of people with Arabic last names out of line has persisted, even though there is almost no evidence for these measures’ efficacy.

Far too much of the American response to coronavirus has amounted to screaming-and-yelling debates over security theater. Glaring at people who don’t wear masks outdoors? Your neighbors out on a maskless walk are almost certainly not contributing to the disease’s spread. Frightened by the prospect of schools (and dare I say, college classrooms) reopening for in-person instruction? Study after study shows that schools and college classrooms that adhere to social distancing measures — dorms are another matter — are simply not superspreader sites. For example, students in Rhode Island who studied at home were as likely as students who were in-person to contract COVID. In New York, schools consistently had lower rates of test positivity than their surrounding communities, and in-school transmission was incredibly rare. 

Of course, those who fetishize Following The Science are hardly the only people making decisions based on misconceptions about coronavirus. Swatties hardly need to be told about those on the political right who indulged in fantasies about the supposed harmlessness of the virus, and even many blue-state governors allowed risky activities like indoor dining and gyms to open far before it was safe to do so.  

But the end result of all this bickering, from the left and right, has been a disproportionate fixation on policies that stood almost no chance of suppressing (or, in their absence, seriously aggravating) the pandemic in the United States. In fact, the measures that might have stood a chance of “crushing the curve” were barely discussed. They were never even on the table.

Talk to most educated people about the smashing success of many East Asian countries in containing coronavirus, and the response will be something along the lines of “well, they all wear masks over there, I wish we could be like that” or “they take lockdowns more seriously there.” 

What will go almost unmentioned are state-provided (often mandatory) quarantines in hotel rooms upon receiving a positive test, used across the region, from Singapore to Hong Kong to Taiwan to South Korea. The severe travel restrictions imposed by more successful states — like the drastic border controls in Australia and New Zealand — were never attempted in the United States, and were actively opposed for months by the W.H.O. and our current president.

More severe policies were never in play, and the American combination of lockdowns and mask-wearing clearly failed to stop surges. Our public health authorities utterly failed to implement more creative policies, resigning themselves to a situation where the only attempt to check continued spread was begging people who had already decided to ignore lockdowns to please take them seriously this time. 

Astoundingly, cheap at-home COVID tests remain unavailable, due to FDA concerns that people might “use them to take greater risks.” The FDA failed to apply basic principles of harm reduction and to recognize that if many people are already gathering indoors, then giving them a cheap test is far better than the status quo. 

Challenge trials, where volunteers receive a vaccine and then a “challenge” dose of the virus in order to speed up clinical trials, were scorned as “poor medical ethics,” as if waiting through ten months of mass casualty events was somehow ethical. And the reason we waited “only” ten months, rather than twelve or eighteen, for vaccines was that so many Americans caught coronavirus that Phase III trials proceeded far faster than expected. 

And even with the finish line now in sight, as evidence in other countries increasingly indicates that one dose of the mRNA vaccines is extremely effective for at least several months (Britain and Canada have stretched the delay between doses of the Astrazeneca, Pfizer, and Moderna vaccines to three and four months, respectively), every state government continues to insist on strictly adhering to trial schedules that give booster shots three or four weeks after the initial jab. About a third of vaccinations now go towards increasing a person’s immunity from around 85 percent to 95 percent efficacy, rather than from zero to 85. 

But Americans seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for security theater. Over half of American children still cannot attend regular in-person schools. The New York subway system is shut down for hours every day to go through expensive and mostly useless “deep cleaning.” At Swarthmore, we’re still quarantining books. And if the intrusive and degrading procedures that persist at the TSA provide any clues to our future, we might be for a long time to come.


  1. This is an excellent article—I was thinking of writing something about this too at some point. How much money has Swarthmore spent on largely-useless disinfectants? I can think of plenty of ways that you could throw more money at actual problems—increase the frequency of testing, for example, which would let us lower some restrictions. Or just fold it into a tuition cut. And I still haven’t seen the administration’s bizarre obsession with “bathroom fixtures” explained anywhere, or why every water fountain on campus is plugged up.

    A final thing I’d add is that a lot of policies from Swarthmore and elsewhere seem to have learned nothing from the utter failure of abstinence-only sex education. Restricting student alcohol to alone within their dorm isn’t going to make students only drink alcohol alone in their dorm. Instead of (for example) allowing drinking in a small group outdoors, where the risk of infection is next to nil, the policy effectively makes it so that the only place you can drink alcohol with your friends is inside a cramped and poorly-ventilated dorm room.

  2. Interesting read. So, if the newspaper staff does not think we should worry about the virus living on surfaces, will they finally start printing issues of The Phoenix again? Any reason why the student newspaper is not being distributed across the campus right now?

    • The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of The Phoenix Editorial Board.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix