By David Leibowitz
If there’s one thing that continues to surprise me about the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not the death toll of 831,000 and rising, or that we’re approaching year three of the presence of the virus in our lives. It’s how poorly we as a nation have handled this public health emergency.
When you grow up believing that you live in an exceptional country — a “shining city on a hill,” to borrow a phrase Ronald Reagan borrowed — it’s tough to see that country put in no better than a solid D-plus performance. Graded generously.
Where have we gone wrong, you ask? I’d cite three major areas of failure: scientific, journalistic and political.
The scientific community performed amazing work creating effective vaccines against COVID-19 at warp speed. Where they’ve fumbled is not at the research level, but where nerds stereotypically stumble — communicating with the rest of us.
Some of this is to be expected; science is an evolutionary process, forever re-examining, rethinking. Scientists change their minds constantly, especially studying a virus that itself mutates by the day. But with COVID-19, the mind-changes have been so many and so radical, vast swaths of the nation seemed to have simply tuned out.
The early days of the pandemic feel quaint now, as does the initial Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mask guidance from the spring 2020.
“If you are not sick,” the CDC told us, “you do not need to wear a facemask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a facemask).”
We’ve traveled a long, twisty road since then. And thousands of news reporters have squawked about it every step of the way. It’s not the local hacks I have much of a problem with, but more the national networks and their style of mixing fact and bloviation. CNN, Fox, MSNBC and their ilk have treated a public health emergency like Election Night or a war, bouncing between factual reportage and commentary, until even a sophisticated viewer can’t tell the difference. Then there’s the politicization of the pandemic, using party ID as the metric of truth-telling. To be an independent American watching cable news in 2022 is to be stupefied by how everything — even the basic decision to get a vaccination or wear a mask — is politics today.
Speaking of politics, remember President Trump’s ludicrous “15 days to slow the spread” campaign? That was about 666 days ago. Then we had President Biden’s June 2021 “month of action” that was going to launch a “summer of freedom.” Old Joe was positively giddy come Independence Day, delivering news the nation had nearly reached the goal of 70% of adults with at least one vaccination.
“This is one of the greatest achievements in American history, and you, the American people, made it happen,” the president claimed. “We are emerging from one of the darkest years in our nation’s history into a summer of hope and joy.”
I guess summer was nice, at least in comparison to Biden’s recent description of how omicron would create “a winter of severe illness and death for the unvaccinated — for themselves, their families and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm.”
Except now it seems maybe science has changed its mind on omicron, which you may or may not have and which may or may not kill you. Except the CDC changed its mind on quarantines, shifting from 10 days to five for those with infections. Except you can’t tell if you’re infected because no home COVID-19 tests are in stock at the drugstore and the news says waits are eternal at testing centers. Of course, the news also says … blah, blah, blah.
Like I said, a solid grade of D-plus.