While we wait to learn more about how Donald Trump used blueprints for “Dr. Strangelove”‘s doomsday machine to impress his guests at Mar-a-Lago, let’s take a look at the US public health authorities. They turned 19 freed from Trump’s scientific denial regime months ago; presumably since then, the rule of reason and ability has been restored.
Sorry, I’m indulging in a little sarcasm. America’s response to Covid-19 has gone badly not only for Trump-related reasons, but also because of problems inherent in our public health building, from bureaucratic sclerosis to the ideological takeover of alleged neutral institutions. All those problems have spread throughout Biden’s presidency, so that the restoration of Trust-the-Science has only exacerbated a crisis of authority.
I want to give two examples. The first is relatively banal at the moment: the absurdity of the CDC’s most recently updated Covid-19 guidelines.
In an ideal view of how expertise informs society, CDC guidelines would closely monitor the evolving nature of the pandemic and provide a roadmap for getting back to business as usual.
In reality, the CDC is consistently lagging behind — behind evolving scientific knowledge, behind the curve of Covid’s evolution, behind how most Americans have already adapted. As my colleague Emily Anthes put it mildly, the new guidelines “effectively recognize the way many Americans have been navigating the pandemic for some time now.”
Except, of course, in those institutions that still dutifully try to respect public health authority, such as, say, the public schools that are stuck implementing early pandemic recommendations like the “six-foot rule” or the “three-foot rule.” in masks in classrooms and one and a half meters everywhere”, alternative, which the new guidelines eventually threw overboard. The arbitrariness of those distances was widely understood even before the contagiousness of the Delta variant made the rules even more absurd. Still, it’s taken at least a year for official science to finally catch up with the real one.
That delay is more familiar than maddening at this point. But it’s really infuriating to see Covidian patterns repeating themselves with a very different disease — the generally non-fatal but still pretty awful monkeypox epidemic, which the Biden administration has just officially declared a public health emergency. proclaimed.
If Covid-19 likely overwhelmed even the most effective public health bureaucracy, monkeypox — now spread primarily through close human contact, especially sexual contact, and for which we already have a vaccine — offered an opportunity to fight the Covid. outbreak with a milder difficulty. Yet the same kinds of bureaucratic failures were repeated: too little testing in the beginning, too little coordination between agencies, too little preparation for what should have been foreseeable challenges.
And along with these failures came an absurd ideological spectacle, with health officials fretting over how to explain the obvious—that monkeypox currently poses a particular threat to men who have sex with men—and whether they should do anything about it. to publicly discourage certain Dionysian people from festivities associated with Pride Month. As suffering-no-fools writer Josh Barro has detailed, public health communication surrounding monkeypox has been an orgy of euphemism and wakespeak, misleading and baffling if you don’t understand what isn’t being said.
This too has had repeated Covidian failures. The political fear of saying or doing anything that could stigmatize homosexuality reflects the public health’s remoteness from George Floyd’s protests — in which many members of an expert community that favored closures and lockdowns decided to lose their credibility. by approving mass protests because the matter seemed too progressive to criticize.
In any case, neutrality has been jettisoned—the idea that public health treats risky behavior equally, regardless of the form they represent. In June 2020 and again in June 2022, the message from key sections of public health officials was that the rules only bind a few groups — for example, Orthodox Jews who hold funerals, or parents who hope to find an open playground — while liberating others as their political cause. is just or if the risk of stigmatization seems too great.
There is a whole discussion going on about how when knowledge institutes politicize themselves in this way, they fuel populism and help the alleged nuclear warlord in Mar-a-Lago. But having a public health community that seems both incompetent and biased is also just plain bad in and of itself.
It’s bad news for what’s left of this pandemic: For example, the collapse of the coronavirus vaccination effort has spread far beyond Trump’s country, with many parents especially inclined to ignore all public health edicts. to be regarded as suspicious.
And it’s worse news for the next crisis. Because speaking for myself, as a citizen with a personal interest in medical controversies, when I read the kind of blaring, news talk-infused monkeypox advice that Barro emphasizes, I can only think: I can never trust anything these people say again.