The costs of complicity on COVID-19

Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter that puts the news in perspective by Jonathan Myerson Katz.

March 3 feels like a lifetime ago. (For some of us, it was.) Italy was days away from its first regional lockdown. Trump was still praising China’s “tremendous progress” in fighting the coronavirus. In the U.S., the official totals stood at 115 people infected. Nine Americans had died.

On that early day, I warned in this newsletter that we couldn’t afford a public health coverup on COVID-19. I was concerned that both the numbers and severity of the threat were being underplayed in the vain hope of boosting Trump’s reelection chances.

My primary criticism, then as now, was reserved for Trump and his corrupt, murderous administration—a group that includes Robert Redfield, the unqualified, hardcore conservative former Army doctor Trump picked to run his CDC. But I was also concerned that even respected public health officials—including Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health and Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx—were publicly defending their bosses’ incompetence and shielding them from criticism.

As I wrote at the time:

Barring a miracle, at some point the numbers will rise to a point no one can hide … If the CDC has abdicated all communication about the outbreak to the politicians at the top before then—if they have failed to address the failures of testing, and not come clean about any pressures they face ahead of time—they will have burned through their credibility. They won’t be able to reassure people not to make dumb, panicky decisions, and convince them not to listen to snake oil salesmen who could end up getting a lot more people killed.

Here we are, nearly four months later. More than 2.6 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19. We have soared past the previous peak of cases in April. Once again, the United States has more new daily COVID-19 cases than any other country in the world. Arizona has more known new cases per million people than any single country; Florida is close behind. Texas has more new cases than Italy did at the height of its outbreak, despite having half Italy’s population.

At least 127,485 Americans are dead.

Fauci told Congress this week that the U.S. could soon see 100,000 new cases a day.

Yet, as the situation grows exponentially more dangerous, confidence in the officials charged with protecting us is falling. In mid-March, 83% of respondents told Pew Research that they had been “very or somewhat confident that CDC officials are doing a good job.” By contrast, in a poll released on Monday, the number of respondents who said that the CDC and other public health organizations “get the facts right about the coronavirus outbreak” almost all or most of the time was just 64%.

The public still gives health officials better grades than politicians or the news media. The worst ratings went, unsurprisingly, to Trump and his administration: a greater percentage of people (36%) said they “hardly ever” get facts about the epidemic right, than said they do “almost all” or “most of the time” (a combined 29%).

I suspect that goes back to my point from March: Standing beside a leader like Trump as he lies, dissembles, and blithely oversees the deaths of thousands just erodes public health officials’ credibility. It does nothing to endear the scientists to Trump’s base, whose main organizing principle—besides racism—is what the Mexican public health theorist Asa Cristina Laurell has called the core message promoted by neoliberal ideology: “Don’t trust anybody but yourself.”

But it forces others to ask: If Dr. Birx can say, with a straight face, that Trump is “attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data” in an interview with a Trump-friendly news outlet, what else might she—and the task force she represents—be lying about?

That is an incredibly dangerous state of affairs when you are dealing with a virus that no one had heard of just over six months ago. A novel pandemic is a moving target, and even experts are bound to trip over themselves.

Take face masks. Officials and many experts initially recommended against universal face-mask wearing—arguing it would create shortages, foster a false sense of security (or perhaps, contradictorily, panic), or encourage people to touch their faces. Those arguments have either been discredited or made irrelevant: the science has clearly come down on side of everybody wear your damn masks to prevent COVID-19.

But how the public interprets a reversal like that is not predetermined. If people believe health officials are acting in good faith, they might chalk it up to being an honest if deadly mistake. If, on the other hand, they see them as part of a corrupt system—one that acts in the interests of power and money and against the public good at every turn—they are more likely to read in more sinister motives.

Or take critical delays in testing and tracing, which allowed the virus to spread wildly. After Trump bellowed about telling officials to “Slow the testing down, please,” Fauci ran cover for him—prevaricating that he knew of no direct order to that effect. Who do we trust: A president who brags about letting a disease that has killed over 127,000 of his citizens run rampant, or a government scientist who has made a priority of not getting fired? And if the answer is neither—what then?

The reason I was worried about health officials putting political pressure ahead of science was that I’d seen its destructive effects before. In 2010, I caught the CDC and World Health Organization helping the United Nations cover up its role in introducing cholera to Haiti, fatally compromising their other genuine efforts to stop the spread of the disease. As I wrote in March:

In Haiti, the failure to commit resources to investigating the origins of the cholera epidemic led to widespread distrust, then riots. Treatment became harder to provide, and families became fearful of all foreigners—including doctors entrusted with saving their lives. Millions are still living with the consequences.

The riots and protests that have gripped this country since I wrote that weren’t a direct result of the distrust over COVID-19. But the frustration fanned the flames. As Elie Mystal wrote in The Nation, the protests were catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd, who “survived a pandemic that is disproportionately killing black folks but couldn’t survive a police force that disproportionately targets black folks.”

As the protests show, people do not just wait for their leaders to tell them what to do. Americans for the most part did not wait for governors to tell us to stay home in late March. We could have ignored the premature “reopening” orders too. That so many people chose to flood bars and beaches speaks to the public confusion caused by competing tribal messages, and the frustration of sacrificing to make space for official action for months, only to see the time frittered away for more looting and self-dealing at the top.

It is too late to stop the catastrophe. It was probably too late the day we handed the keys to the federal government to an incompetent, corrupt businessman who would destroy the National Security Council’s pandemic response team, pull American epidemiologists out of China, and throw away the literal pandemic playbook his predecessor had handed him. (Read James Fallows on the gory details; I interviewed the head of the pandemic prevention unit Trump gutted in April.)

But it’s never too late to stop being complicit. America’s public health agencies can stop propping up negligent leaders. They can speak openly and frankly about the ways the president and his coterie are actively wasting lives. (Local health officials can do the same with their governors and mayors as well.) And they can get ready to hold all those responsible to account, including within their own ranks, when the disaster is done.

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Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, looks at the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the rise and fall of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.