The coronavirus pandemic is an event unlike any in living memory. A new pathogen swept the globe, causing widespread death and disability. Scientists were unsure where it came from, how it spread, or what measures the public should be taking to protect themselves. Historically trusted institutions like the World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and state departments of health published guidance, some of which carried significant impacts on the public’s daily life.
Then, instead of coming together to leverage the best of the American people, as witnessed after 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, we embraced our parochial partisan positions. What should have been a matter of public health became the venue for political sparring and one-upmanship.
The result? A reckless disregard for the public’s health. Regarding vaccines, masks and lockdowns, opponents asked “Why do you want to destroy small businesses and drive entrepreneurs to poverty?”
Both Republicans and Democrats readily leapt to the contemporary pastime of identity politics. Rather than the pandemic unifying us in spirit and effort to preserve public’s well-being and halt the spread of a common scourge, we ignored the big picture and continued to bicker.
Vaccines, masks, isolation and physical separation ceased to be the tools of public health practitioners and became either totems of salvation or icons of oppression and injustice.
Along the way there were tragic casualties. One million Americans have died from COVID-19, and hundreds of thousands face continued economic hardships. The institutions responsible for medical and epidemiological research and policy, whose sole reason for being is the protection of the public’s health, were drawn into the mud-slinging.
Rather than being allowed to conduct their business impartially, with the single-minded goal of defeating disease, the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes for Health were misused. Politicians on all sides cherry-picked and mischaracterized the agencies’ products and recommendations. Scientific efforts were conflated with political personalities, and idea originators came to be politically tainted by the association. Scientists were perceived as being guided by political affiliations and consequentially lost the public’s confidence.
The scientific method, that iterative process of observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, analysis, and drawing data-based conclusions, ceased to be recognized as a proven path to knowledge accumulation. Adapting to new knowledge was seen as proof that science is consistently wrong and best taken with a large grain of salt. Tragically, Americans came to distrust medical science in general.
Americans should be shamefaced and mourning how readily we abandoned science to support our parties.