It’s more than “The Science”
IT’S REFRESHING AND ENCOURAGING to see Anthony Fauci again at the podium, and to receive actual information about the pandemic from him. This was presaged by Joe Biden’s declaration that Covid policy would “follow the science,” be dictated by “the science,” rely on “the science,” etc. It’s a good thing, but a bit heavy on science per se as a sacred totem, rather than a foundation for actual policy. The change from science denial and outright quackery to science worship is jarring. It’s as if we’ve gone from a diet of greasy fast food and donuts during the Trump administration to keto, all at once.
I’ve griped before about overuse of the word “science,” because it’s a trigger word for the rabidly anti-elite crowd of deplorables the previous regime courted and ultimately rode to insurrection. As a messaging strategy it would be better to use phrases like “people’s examinations of . . .” or “what we’ve learned about . . .” or “experience has shown . . .” rather than simply invoking the authority of an institution viewed by many as a snooty clique of know-it-alls who don’t live in the real world.
But the problem actually goes beyond messaging, for science really shouldn’t be the sole arbiter of pandemic policy, nor of public health policy in general. Policy is by nature political—the words do share the same root, after all—and political considerations as well as social, cultural, and economic ones cannot be ignored when shaping action against the virus. Those forces got us into this mess as much as the virus itself did, and it will take mastery of those forces, as well as virology, to get us out.
The virus’s spread wouldn’t have happened without a surging global economy, dense urbanization, and easy global transit. In the developed world, dense gatherings in bars and restaurants, in sports stadiums and concert halls, in offices and classrooms, and in the public transportation that gets people around accelerated the spread. In the U.S. it was supercharged by a mass culture that values an ironic sort of individualism that prizes such gatherings of strangers while downplaying shared responsibility among them.
The political element of the pandemic was highlighted when Donald Trump flogged his followers to resist wearing masks. “Liberate Minnesota!” and other exhortations rendered public health measures not only political but partisan, and tapped into deep suspicions of government authority and even of any sort of community responsibility. Subsequent behavior by White House officials reinforced the anti-mask, anti-distancing spirit, all capped off by Trump’s kabuki-like unmasking on the Truman balcony.
The appeal to resist public-health measures was no doubt reinforced by the real economic pressures people endured. Public-health efforts like the closing of various workplaces and congregating spaces took a serious toll throughout the economy as their employees, as well as those of related industries, lost income. Then, when they or their friends were out of work or unable to get to work, and were at the same time deprived of the simple pleasures of congregation with others, the desire to resist restrictions was strong. The president’s false denials of the pandemic’s danger gave permission to do so, based on a fantasy: that everybody could do what they wanted without fear and anybody who said otherwise was not just a fool but a socialist.
So there’s no sense denying that these measures are inherently political. If medical science were the only basis for governmental actions to control the pandemic, impossibly strict measures would be taken—total home quarantine for weeks, cessation of all air and rail travel, and the like—which would cripple the economy completely and likely bring even stronger resistance. Wrestling citizens to the ground and dragging them away to quarantine may have worked in Wuhan, but not here. What was needed months ago, and is still needed now, was a policy that modulated social activity in ways that slowed the spread while minimizing the social and economic pain, and at the same time compensated affected industries and their workers for the loss of income and revenues. Andrew Cuomo offered early on an apt metaphor of “tightening and loosening the valve” as conditions dictated, though further specification of exactly which “valves” should be turned would help.
Most important, any measures enacted require careful messaging to explain why they’re worth doing and why they’re consistent with American values. This doesn’t always work miracles—Gerald Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” are cases in point—but a campaign that makes masks and distancing seem normal and widespread, involving ubiquitous examples of government personnel and influencers, would have helped.
Instead, what we got from the Trump administration was an all-or-nothing characterization of pandemic policy: “shut down” vs. “open up,” health vs. the economy, tyranny vs. liberty, science vs. the people. The Biden administration should avoid playing into this dichotomy. The president should be explicit in characterizing his decisions as attempts to balance many interacting needs, informed by scientific knowledge that tells him the likely consequences of the various alternatives. It is, after all, how these decisions are actually made.