In early March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was about to explode into mainstream consciousness, I cofounded Flatten the Curve–Tri-Cities, a group of more than 14,000 people in Southeastern WA whose purpose is to catalyze and support immediate, proactive efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our community. As the pandemic has unfolded, our efforts have taken many forms: information sharing, disinformation debunking, volunteer coordination, mutual aid, collaboration with the local Health Department, community education, and nonprofit fundraising support.
During our formation we made the decision to 'de-politicize' our positions, communications, and online discussions as much as possible. We wanted to be in service to the entire community, and spent many hours creating and evolving norms to this end. While, even then, there were hints of what was to come in the politicization of COVID-19 science and public health response, there was still a hope that the country would pull together behind united, science-based leadership to weather this profound challenge together. We sustained that policy and that hope for almost 6 months, but as we sit contemplating the unfathomable reality of 180,000+ lives lost, 1,000 more people dying every day, and credible projections suggesting a death toll of up to 400,000 people by year end if we don’t correct our course, it is time to acknowledge that that hope has vanished. Our only way through this—both locally and nationwide—requires new political leadership.
A MOMENT OF POSSIBILITY
The US response to the pandemic has been among the world’s worst, especially when considered in conjunction with our wealth. For comparison, it is useful to look at some of our closest allies, most of whom also dealt with major first waves.
On August 29, 2020 1,105 people died of COVID in the US (population: 328 million). On the same day, a total of 52 people died in these ally countries (population: 420 million).
To weather a pandemic in a way that minimizes infection, loss of life, long-term comorbidity, and economic damage in a country the size of ours requires tight coordination between a dizzying array of entities. Federal, local, and state governments. Healthcare. Manufacturing. Social Services. Most of all, though, it requires authentic leadership and a plan.
After months of downplaying the severity of the virus, for a period of a few weeks in early April, there was a glimmer of hope that President Trump would finally embody that crucial leadership role. After being presented with credible data about the scale of the death toll if serious interventions were not pursued, the President’s tone changed. He centered Dr. Anthony Fauci in his response planning and public relations, announced partnerships with private industry to introduce rapid testing, made overtures towards using the Defense Production Act to build ventilators and critical testing supplies, supported Congress in passing the CARES Act to take care of the people, made commitments to the state Governors to support state testing ramp-ups and PPE provisioning needs, and engaged with the CDC to develop safe reopening guidelines for the states. For the first time in more than a month, I breathed a sigh of relief. I remember thinking, if he actually steps up and leads the country through this crisis, it will mean his re-election. And, God help me, I will be OK with that.
THE POLITICS OF DISINFORMATION
Alas, this period of cohesiveness was short lived. Sometime late April, coinciding with a growing understanding that COVID was hitting Black and Brown communities much harder than middle-class white ones, the President made a calculated decision to abandon plans for a national testing strategy and shift responsibility solely to the states. Couched as an embracing of federalism, this decision also enabled him to take credit for successes at the state level while castigating governors from Democratic states that weren’t performing as well. During this same period, the President also adopted the view that restoring the US to economic health meant aggressively reopening as soon as possible, despite volumes of data from the US and around the world showing clearly that, in a pandemic, economic health and public health are irrevocably intertwined.
Usage of the Defense Production Act to mitigate testing supply chain issues went nowhere. Rapid testing at Walgreens and CVS never materialized. Dr. Fauci was soon benched in favor of the President speaking for himself on matters of science and epidemiology. Attempts to provide federally-mandated worker protections for COVID in high-risk industries like food processing were repeatedly repelled. Direct personal attacks against Democratic governors escalated.
On April 17, the President tweeted, "LIBERATE MINNESOTA, LIBERATE MICHIGAN, and LIBERATE VIRGINIA," despite none of those states meeting his own CDC-authored 'Opening Up America Again' guidelines which were released the day prior. Two weeks later, heavily-armed protestors stormed the Michigan statehouse demanding an end to Governor Witmer’s stay-at-home order.
While alarming in its own right, the Michigan statehouse protest was no isolated incident. Similar protests, both online and off, sprang up all around the country including here in the Tri-Cities. Months before the Black Lives Matter protests catalyzed debate about their role in viral spread (note: lots of data shows they were not major drivers of transmission, due to a high percentage of masking and being outdoors), maskless right-wing protests erupted on street corners, at statehouses, and in potato sheds in Eastern Washington. These protests were no doubt rooted in authentic pain and frustration. But it is impossible to understate the role that pseudoscientific disinformation, conspiracy peddling, and outright lying played in fueling their fire. And it is impossible to understate the role that the President of the United States played, and continues to play, in openly fanning those flames. Whether it was disinformation regarding death counts, mask effectiveness, hydroxycholoroquine, causes of death, or dozens of other theories, the President’s willingness to amplify them consistently undermined the country’s ability to respond effectively to the pandemic.
And so, though a large majority of US residents continued to support a science-backed response to the virus, the voices of a vocal and aggressive minority grew both in volume and influence.
CORRUPTION AND THE CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE
In late May, failing to learn the lessons from the Northeast and succumbing to pressure from the President and from their own constituents, many Southern governors began aggressively reopening their states. According to the President’s own reopening guidelines, none had the testing capacity, contact tracing, or case counts to warrant such a move. The death toll lagged behind the rising case count, which gave these governors temporary cover, but the results were predictable. By the end of July, the death toll in Texas, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas and other states skyrocketed, even as some governors, mayors, and elected sheriffs resisted mask mandates. In Texas alone, more than 200 people died every day in the month of August, with a number of days surpassing 300 deaths.
This so-called 'second wave' prompted a surge of mask mandates, including here in Washington State, and a renewed sense of vigilance among much of the population. By this point, though, the politicization of COVID was complete. Even as most people responded with better mask compliance and a corresponding reduction in case count, the relentless disinformation campaigns continued, aided and abetted by the President. This normalized an environment where COVID minimizing and outright militant denialism became legitimate positions to take. Dozens of public health officials around the country quit, either in protest or for fear of their lives as they were targeted by extremists.
As the disinformation campaigns have roiled through social media and the public sphere, a parallel channel of corruption has infected crucial federal agencies, further poisoning the public’s confidence in our leadership and institutions. The CDC, once rightly viewed around the world as the apolitical crown jewel of public health, has replaced at least five career scientists with political appointees and repeatedly succumbed to White House pressure in its policy recommendations. Former CDC Directors, career scientists, and the public health community around the world has watched in horror as the CDC has weakened or eliminated guidelines around worker safety, school safety, church safety, and testing standards after pressure from the President. In a completely unprecedented move, top public health officials and scientists came out en masse to urge policymakers to outright *ignore* the most recent CDC guidance to cease testing of asymptomatic contacts.
Meanwhile, at the FDA, a similar degradation of standards and ethics is unfolding. After losing a months-long fight about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in the face of numerous peer-reviewed studies showing that it doesn’t work against COVID, the President and his advisors have turned up the heat. In mid-August the agency approved the widespread use of convalescent plasma with huge fanfare, citing false statistics to justify the fast-tracked approval, despite no published studies supporting its use. A week later, they approved the drug remdesevir to be used on *all* patients with COVID, despite no published studies justifying its use for much of the patient population. “It seems to be a pattern of approval without science, without data, without evidence,” said Dr. Eric Topol, Vice President for Research at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California and a national expert on the use of data in medical research.
This extremely concerning pattern is now showing itself in the vaccine development process. Vaccines require a certain percentage of the population to receive them to be effective, which requires public trust—already an uphill battle due to the prevalence of the vocal anti-vaccination movement within the COVID disinformation brigade. In recent weeks, Scott Hahn, the head of the FDA, has signaled a willingness to potentially skip or accelerate the 'Phase III' portion of vaccine trials. Then last week, the FDA issued a letter to major hospitals and Public Health districts around the country instructing them to prepare for vaccine distribution by November 1, just days before the election. This terrifyingly overt politicization of a process that is completely dependent on public confidence prompted yet another unprecedented move. On September 4, the major US drug companies developing COVID vaccines jointly announced a pledge to not seek government approval until the shots have been proven effective and safe.
Against this backdrop, President Trump has sidelined world-renowned infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci in favor of new scientific mouthpiece, Dr. Scott Atlas. Dr. Atlas is an accomplished radiologist who has no infectious disease experience, but who does have a willingness to give voice and credence to the so-called 'herd immunity' school of thought, though he avoids using the phrase. His prominence in this new role gives legitimacy to the vocal minority of COVID minimizers and deniers. As with many of his lieutenants, Dr. Atlas came to the President’s attention through his appearances on Fox News, where he repeatedly downplayed the virus’ seriousness. Herd immunity is a nebulous idea that is poorly understood by most who advocate for it. With respect to COVID, most infectious disease experts agree that this approach as advocated by Dr. Atlas could result in more than one million additional deaths in the US.
30,283 people died in the US in August. 25,897 people died in July. People with names, faces, and families. Many people I’ve shared those stats with have been surprised. They thought July was worse. Why? Because people—me included!—are tired of COVID. Because they’ve stopped paying attention. And because the disinformation is working.
Do you know how you know it’s working? Because our healthcare workers *still* don’t have enough PPE. Because we *still* don’t have nearly enough testing. Because more than a thousand healthcare workers have died, hundreds of food processing workers have died, a hundred law enforcement officers have died, and most people can’t tell you a single one of their names. Against our humanity, we’ve been normalized to mass death, and we’re being conditioned by this administration to further normalize the fact that hundreds of thousands more of our community members are dying unnecessarily.
We could have controlled this virus. We could look like Germany. Heck, we could look like New York! We could be opening schools cautiously but confidently, with sufficient testing and tracing capacity and community trust to control outbreaks without blanket lockdowns. The reason we can’t is because of choices we made, as a nation. Political choices and policy choices, yes, but most of all *leadership* choices. In a pandemic, the importance of authentic, values-driven leadership cannot be overstated. From it flows cohesion, common purpose, compassion for our neighbors, foresight, resolve, sober acknowledgement of facts, and shared grief. Without it, there is chaos, self-interest, unacknowledged fear, and exploitation. Which is right where we are.
On November 3, we have the opportunity to elect new leadership. Political leaders certainly aren’t the only ones that matter, but in a pandemic—whether we're talking about COVID or the next one—it turns out they matter a whole lot. We are *still in* this pandemic, and we probably aren’t getting out of it without huge additional losses of life without new leadership. I already know that you’re voting—thank you for that! But it’s not enough. Not this year.
My challenge is that you take your energy, your outrage, your fear, your grief, and channel them into the actions below.
John Roach is a lifelong resident of the Tri-Cities and the CEO of WholeStory.
Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response