Politics & Policy

The Partisan Undermining of Coronavirus Science

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer address the media after several dams breached, in downtown Midland, Mich., May 20, 2020. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)
Politicians and public-health authorities reveal their hypocrisy — and reduce the chances of the public taking them seriously again.

The universal lockdown of the country following the COVID-19 outbreak raised tensions through every segment of American society. The social and economic disruptions sparked protests all over the country, most famously in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. These protests were quickly denounced by media personalities, medical experts, and politicians who claimed that the risk of spreading the virus made it foolish to gather in such ways.

Consider Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, who said that those protests were risking the health of the people of her state, that they “make it likelier that we are going to have to stay in a stay-at-home posture,” and that anyone with a platform should encourage others to “do the right thing” and remain home. Or consider Deborah Birx, the lead doctor on President Trump’s coronavirus task force, who said: “It’s devastatingly worrisome to me personally because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather who has a co-morbid condition and they have a serious or a very — or an unfortunate outcome, they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives.”

Such concerns were completely reasonable. The nation had just passed the peak of the virus surge in hot spots such as New York and Michigan, and fear of further spread was legitimate. The entire scientific logic for the lockdowns, after all, was to suppress the peak of the surge of the disease, in hopes that our health-care system would have time to learn and adapt.

However, everything changed on May 25, 2020, when Minneapolis resident George Floyd was killed. The outrage over this cruel killing by an officer of the state inflamed the passions of the country, sparking protests, violence, and looting, in the Twin Cities and across the United States. People surged onto the streets, primarily peacefully, to display their full displeasure, fear, anguish, and sorrow.

This time, the response from national pundits and experts to the protest movement was starkly different. Dan Diamond’s excellent article in Politico provides a full accounting of how the medical community has responded to these protests. Jeffrey Flier, the former dean of Harvard Medical School, admitted that physicians were grappling with conflict between the science, and their emotions:

“It makes it clear that all along there were trade-offs between details of lockdowns and social distancing and other factors that the experts previously discounted and have now decided to reconsider and rebalance.” . . . Flier pointed out that the protesters were also engaging in behaviors, like loud singing in close proximity, which CDC has repeatedly suggested could be linked to spreading the virus. . . . “At least for me, the sudden change in views of the danger of mass gatherings has been disorienting, and I suspect it has been for many Americans.”

“Disorienting” is a very kind way to paint the shift from outright disgust and hatred that many Americans faced when they challenged the logic of the lockdowns to the ongoing celebration of the current protests. Don’t forget just how vitriolic the earlier outrage was: On social media, people were outright called murderers and terrorists; numerous governors, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey’s Phil Murphy, literally said people would die because of those protests; and media personalities behaved even worse, with Julia Ioffe of GQ calling the protesters selfish and demanding they stay home originally, and Soledad O’Brien calling Ricochet editor Bethany Mandel a “Grandma Killer.”

Suddenly, with the eruption of protests in the name of the murder of George Floyd, those concerns conveniently disappeared. Some former critics, such as Ioffe, have reversed their positions on mass gatherings and openly support them. Others remain silent, demonstrating their cowardice by barely mentioning the threat of the coronavirus to the public at large as thousands of people congregate in protest.

Consider, again, Governor Whitmer of Michigan. Whitmer has been very slow to reduce restrictions on the lockdowns. She and her attorney general, Dana Nessel, famously pursued a barber in the city of Owosso, Mich., who refused to close during the pandemic; the barber has since won his case in court. Whitmer has continued demanding strict masking and social-distancing rules for everyone in the state well into June. Yet when the BLM protests arrived in metropolitan Detroit on June 4, Whitmer was there to greet them. She wore a mask but rejected all social-distancing regulations, marching side-by-side with protesters. Whitmer was more than happy to violate her own executive orders.

Such hypocrisy is not unusual from journalists, or even politicians. However, a much more serious ethical and professional issue arises when doctors and scientists show such blatant hypocritical bias. As scientists, we have sworn to the public that our recommendations would depend on the science and the data, and reject the whims of emotion and personal opinion.

Sadly, this has not been the case. Former head of the Centers for Disease Control Tom Frieden tweeted that he was concerned about losing the community trust by having physicians voice the risks of the virus to protesters. However, back on May 3, he stated, without any fear, “We’re not just staying home in the magical belief that the virus is going to go away. It won’t. Staying home gives us the opportunity to strengthen our health-care and public-health systems.”

Did the virus change in the last month in ways that staying home now doesn’t weaken our system? Frieden is now making the same arguments that lockdown opponents were making a month earlier! In a tweet on June 2, Frieden stated: “The threat to Covid control from protesting outside is tiny compared to the threat to Covid control created when governments act in ways that lose community trust. People can protest peacefully AND work together to stop Covid. Violence harms public health.”

The facts and reality are that the science and data have not substantially changed. We don’t have a good quantification of the risk of viral spread outdoors: the common consensus is the risk is low, but that consensus existed a month earlier as well, and no conclusive, landmark studies have emerged. Nothing about our fundamental understanding of the disease has changed, but Frieden has done a 180-degree reversal of his position regardless.

Many physicians and scientists have likewise let their partisan leanings overshadow the science. An epidemiologist on Twitter stated: “In this moment the public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.” What absurd scientific standards were used to make that remarkable statement?

The short answer is: none. Between 2013 and 2019, police in the United States killed a total of 7,666 people, according to Mapping Police Violence, a research and advocacy group. That data shows that relative to their share of the general population, blacks are 2.5 times as likely as whites to be killed by police; since 2015, 1,252 African Americans have been shot and killed by police, using the Washington Post’s database. These are obviously horrific numbers, and we should stipulate that no citizen of the United States should be complacent about these obvious abuses.

But science shouldn’t deal with emotion or fundamentals. It deals with facts and data. And the facts are these: As of May 26, 2020 (the last date for which race-based data is fully available), the APM Research Lab documented a total of approximately 88,000 deaths as a result of COVID-19. Of those, 21,878 were African-American. African Americans were shown to die of the coronavirus 2.4 times as often as whites, and 2.2 times as often as Hispanics and Asians. To put that into better perspective, 1 in 1850 black Americans in the entire country perished, versus 1 in 4400 white Americans. African Americans represent 13 percent of all Americans, but have suffered 25 percent of all viral deaths.

These are incredible, and tragic, numbers. And medical science can give us some clues as to the reason for the disproportionate effect. African Americans are less likely to have family physicians, are more likely to have co-morbidities that lead to high risk of complications with coronavirus, and are more likely to use mass-transit systems. Additionally, more African Americans live in multi-generational homes, with possibility of infection from their children and grandchildren. All of these factors likely made them far more susceptible to the disease than the average American. But ultimately what this shows is that the coronavirus is somewhere in the range of 200 to 300 times more deadly than all of the police in the entire country — as a conservative estimate.

To be sure, reducing this complex issue to basic numbers fails to capture the complexities of dealing with racism in our society. These are emotional issues that cannot be distilled scientifically. It is perfectly reasonable for the public to deal with these issues by contemplating the larger context of society, racism, and historical connotations.

But scientists and physicians are supposed to be immune to political or emotional whims. Too many are showing themselves not to be. And the dangers extend beyond hypocrisy. Distrust between the public and the medical community makes it harder for the public to make sacrifices in the name of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Physicians fundamentally rely on trust; the doctor–patient relationship is one of the fundamental philosophical cornerstones in medicine. So, too, do public-health officials, whose recommendations can be disruptive to ordinary people’s lives.

It took a Herculean effort to institute the lockdowns. But many experts have totally refused to speak up about the risk of these protests to cause future surges of the disease, while they were violently opposing similar, smaller protests a few weeks ago. The narrative is clear: They are willing to stand up for the science, as long as it is politically and emotionally convenient.

Not all experts have stayed silent about the risks that persist to this day. Anthony Fauci has remained consistent in warning about the likely consequences of mass gatherings. But, from the beginning, plenty of people in the public-health and medical communities have expected ordinary Americans to listen to their recommendations while failing to admit their own scientific and knowledge limitations. In a piece in April, I stated that we would need sympathy and empathy nationwide to get through this crisis. We should now add humility to the list as well.

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