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A nation could not have been more poorly positioned to fight COVID-19 than by the Trump administration.
Science is returning after serving a four-year sentence as a political prisoner.
Science to fight COVID-19 is returning to the White House after ten months of President Trump’s self-admitted campaign to downplay the lethality of a virus that in a few days will have killed a quarter-million Americans—about 80 times the number of victims killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Science is returning after Trump serially dismissed the data and advice from the nation’s top infectious disease experts and epidemiologists and rejected successful strategies used abroad to control the virus. They include masks, testing and contact tracing, curfews, travel restrictions, stiffer, but shorter lockdowns, stronger stimulus packages, and tweaking of existing social safety nets to keep families and businesses afloat during lockdowns and continuing restrictions.
Science is returning after Trump surrendered any remaining shards of a sober COVID response to Scott Atlas, who promotes letting the virus spread throughout the nation until it runs out of people to infect in a “herd immunity” strategy that would kill hundreds of thousands of people.
The abduction of science these last four years was so profound that it was a highlight of the first speeches by Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris and President-Elect Joe Biden. Harris told the nation, “You chose hope, unity, decency, science, and, yes, truth.” Biden said he would spare no effort on a COVID strategy built on “a bedrock of science.”
He said what should have been said by a responsible president in April during the ferocious first surge: “We cannot repair the economy, restore our vitality, or relish life’s most precious moments—hugging a grandchild, birthdays, weddings, graduations, all the moments that matter most to us—until we get this virus under control.”
The release of science from prison began on November 9, when Biden announced his transition team’s coronavirus task force. It will be co-chaired by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner David Kessler, and Marcella Nunez-Smith, associate dean for health equity research at Yale University’s medical school.
Kessler’s presence is notable as he served under both Republican President George W. Bush and Democrat President Bill Clinton and led bruising public health efforts that ultimately led to Congress giving the FDA the power in 2009 to regulate addictive and carcinogenic tobacco products.
Nunez-Smith’s presence signals the intention to factor in racial disparities in COVID-19 strategy. She co-authored a study on inconsistent collection of COVID medical data by race. It concluded: “Given our nation’s longstanding history of structural racism, public health officials, healthcare systems, and policymakers should work together to improve the availability of high-quality COVID-19 data.”
The Trump administration inhumanely ignored structural racism when it designated meatpacking “critical infrastructure,” a cheek-to-jowl occupation that happens to be 70 percent Black and Latinx and 80 percent of color. Many white, conservative governors and Republican-led state legislatures aggressively re-opened state economies on the backs of “essential” service sectors disproportionately of color, as White workers disproportionately worked safely from home.
While the pandemic has claimed more than 100,000 White lives in the United States, the age-adjusted COVID-19 death rate for Black, Latinx and Indigenous people is triple that of White people, according to the APM Research Lab. A University of Utah studythis summer found a strong correlation between Black COVID deaths and overrepresentation in “essential” jobs.
Study senior-author Fares Qeadan said the data “strongly suggests that Blacks are not dying from COVID-19 because they are genetically more susceptible, have more co-morbidities, or aren’t taking the necessary precautions. Instead, it’s likely because they are working in jobs where they have a greater risk of coming in contact with the virus day in and day out.”
Similarly, a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open found that construction workers in Austin, Texas contributed significantly to community spread of the virus and increased hospitalizations. The City of Austin tried to implement a spring moratorium on non-critical residential and commercial construction, but dropped it after Governor Greg Abbott, one of the nation’s most aggressive proponents of prioritizing the economy over public health, issued an executive order deeming all construction essential. Construction workers—66 percent Latinx in Austin—were five times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19.
Given the void of empathy and compassion for this in the White House and so many state houses, it might seem fantastical for a Biden task force to get policymakers to work together regardless of party and region to attack COVID-19 right now, even though Inauguration Day is more than two months away. But it must try. At our current pace, nearly 400,000 people will have died from COVID-19 by February 1, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
The IHME also says that if the nation were to rally behind a universal mask policy, we could save 60,000 of the next projected 160,000 deaths, exceeding the capacity of the largest stadiums in Major League Baseball.
Surely that seems like a cause worth rallying around.
It would be ideal if the current administration saw the election as a referendum on its COVID-19 strategy and joined with Biden in a bipartisan transitional task force. That is, of course, unlikely given the president’s dictatorial denial of having lost the election. But maybe, just maybe, there will eventually be just enough Republicans out there who, relieved of fealty to lame duck quackery, will return to science and engage in a national campaign of masking up.
Maybe, just maybe, with science guiding a sane response to COVID-19, a middle path can be found between those who put the economy and personal privilege over collective health and the safety of others, and those workers who feel sacrificed by the avaricious rush back to “normal.” Besides workers in jobs deemed essential by politicians, there is the overwhelmed world of frontline health care, pressure in even liberal states to force teachers back into classrooms, and whole communities vulnerable to COVID-19 because of disparities—often from systemic racism—in disease, health care, crammed housing conditions, local pollution, and residential proximity to toxic industries.
No one wants to have a hard lockdown again. Perhaps with adherence to scientific guidance in essential activities, taking a pass on optional activities and gatherings, and a Congress that offers a new round of relief offered in other wealthy countries, such as Germany’s compensating small businesses for up to 75 percent of losses in this month’s new shutdown, we can avoid another April. Deborah Birx, a member of the oft-dismissed White House coronavirus task force, pleaded as much on the eve of the election.
As crowds at Trump campaign rallies chanted “Fire Fauci!” in reference to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Birx wrote a memo urging much more aggressive action against the coronavirus. She wrote, “This is not about lockdowns—it hasn’t been about lockdowns since March or April. It’s about an aggressive balanced approach that is not being implemented.”
Maybe, just maybe, cooler heads can prevail as the defiant symbolism of Trump’s mostly maskless sardine-can campaign rallies fades in the rear-view mirror. After all, nine states won by Trump currently have statewide mask mandates. Some Republican governors understand (or have been forced to understand by the severity of the outbreaks in their states) that the virus does not care about blue states or red states. It thrives on personal carelessness and political paralysis.
As much as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has caddied for the Trump agenda, he himself has urged individual mask wearing. “I’m here to tell you, put it on,” McConnell said in July. “The single best way all of us can be responsible to ourselves and sensitive to the health of others is to wear a mask and to practice social distancing.”
The election itself demonstrated for us all that we cannot wait for a new COVID-19 strategy until Inauguration Day. As poll workers essential to our democracy painstakingly counted votes, COVID-19 continued to rack up landslide victories, roaring to “uncontrolled spread” in 45 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico by November 11, according to CovidExitStrategy.org. The November 12 coronavirus map of the New York Times has only one state, Louisiana, where recent infection levels are low and staying low
As the incumbent president lied incoherently about “election interference,” nothing interfered with the virus. Fauci, who has remained the nation’s more trusted singular source by far on the pandemic despite being sidelined by Trump from the coronavirus task force, warned in the summer that reckless re-openings could lead to 100,000 infections a day. The week before the election, Fauci said the United States was in a “precarious situation” for a winter with “a whole lot of hurt” as fall weather drove people indoors and the winter holidays might tempt people with pandemic fatigue to conduct unsafe gatherings.
“All the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home indoors,” he told the Washington Post. “You could not possibly be positioned more poorly.”
A nation could not have been more poorly positioned to fight COVID-19 than by the Trump administration. It was not chagrined by the First Family contracting the virus; not by the COVID-19 death of one of its few prominent Black supporters, Herman Cain; not by the super-spreader Rose Garden event for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett; not by outbreaks among the staff of Vice President Mike Pence, nor by the most recent round of announced infections that includes Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.
In the home stretch of the presidential campaign, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, declared, “We are not going to control the pandemic.” That prompted Fauci to wryly say, “I tip my hat to him for admitting the strategy.” Meadows, a noted anti-masker and opponent of locking down, proceeded to contract the virus and, like his boss, “played down” the diagnosis, not making it public for a couple days and perhaps endangering others.
The day after the election, the US broke the 100,000-infection mark, and averaged 122,000 infections per day and 1,240 deaths per day in the four days before Biden was declared the winner. A new record of 142,755 infections was hit on November 11.
Daily deaths had been as low as 213 on September 20. With more than 1,400 deaths on both November 10 and 11, the nation’s seven-day rolling average for deaths has climbed above the 1,000-death mark for the first time since mid-August. A whole lot of hurt is already here as the US set a new record of 65,000 COVID hospitalizations on November 11.
The United States, which has four percent of the world’s population, accounts for 20 percent of all COVID-19 infections and deaths. North Dakota is so swamped with cases that it is letting asymptomatic frontline health care workers infected with the coronavirus to stay on the job with protective gear.
President-elect Biden has repeatedly said this election was about the “soul” of the nation. With the most soulless president of a lifetime now defeated, it is now time to save as many souls as we can. Biden has made a science-based task force his first major act as president-elect, pleading with the nation to mask up. With Trump’s COVID task force defunct and macabre records being set daily, Biden has the moral authority to make his task force as useful as he can to the public over these next two months.
They can create a data dashboard for the lay public and state and local policy makers to understand, and hold televised public health briefings to remind people how to stay safe. The scientists would do the talking at these briefings, unlike Trump’s briefings where medical experts often stood to the side as he promoted dubious and debunked medicines, bullied reporters who questioned his horrid response, and as we now conclusively know, lied to the American people about the severity of the disease.
But with only moral authority at Biden’s command for now, it is also on the nation to unify around the science at hand to control the virus. It starts by treating the simple object of a mask as our momentary American flag. To fight this virus we must be indivisible, where individual liberties must concede to the health of all.
If we do not, Inauguration Day will be far grimmer than it should be.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a 2018 winner from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, a 10-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists and a Pulitzer Prize finalist and co-author of Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock (2015).
© 2020 Union of Concerned Scientists. Included in Vox Populi with permission.