Lessons Learned from the pandemic — Leadership plays a vital role
Biden’s First Goal: Regaining Our Trust
On Jan. 20, 2020, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the U.S. At the time, we had no hint of the devastation to come-more than 24 million infected, 400,000 dead, and schools, businesses, sports events and indeed our entire economy hinging on the vagaries of a virus we can’t even see. Many, including then-President Donald Trump, believed that the novel coronavirus would eventually peter out and disappear.
But as cases started to mount around the world, especially in China and Europe, it became clear that this virus, and the disease it caused, wasn’t simply like a “bad flu” as Trump repeatedly claimed. It had pandemic potential. The response then should have been to put aside politics and marshall the widely admired, and well-proven ability of U.S. public health experts in protecting Americans against-and defeating-this common enemy. But instead, from day one, our energies were diverted by the Trump administration’s refusal to take the virus seriously, and ultimately shunt responsibility for that underestimation.
Rather than pouring government attention and resources into developing and scaling up testing to detect the disease-one of the first and possibly strongest ways to stop the virus-health officials were sidetracked by having to stamp out the constant fires of misinformation and unscientific claims about the virus fueled by Trump’s tweets and conflagrated by his supporters at the state level. By dismissing the seriousness of COVID-19 last spring, the White House slowed down efforts to quickly develop tests to detect the virus, which in turn enabled it to spread throughout the nation unchecked. By contrast, during the SARS outbreak of 2002, then-CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding said U.S. researchers had a test for that virus in hand before the first case entered the country.
The delay in widespread and effective testing for COVID-19 set off a cascade of events that put the U.S. response so far behind that we’re still playing catch up. Yes, in the past year we have approved an antiviral drug to treat COVID-19, and have two authorized vaccines (with a handful more on the way). But those victories were won despite, and not because of, the White House. Instead of making COVID-19 the top priority for all arms of government, the Trump Administration diluted the nation’s attention and resources with political infighting and misinformation campaigns. He commandeered briefings about the pandemic, stealing away the only time that people could hear from scientists on the front lines of fighting the disease and instead planting misleading ideas and encouraging dangerous behaviors. Last April, he notoriously mused during one of those briefings about the benefits of bleach and sunlight in killing the virus, leading to several tragic deaths after desperate and fearful people decided to ingest bleach to protect themselves from getting sick. Instead of supporting leading experts when they advised the public to wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus, Trump questioned that advice and seeded mistrust of the science and scientists.
After the first wave of cases last spring, Trump pushed to reopen businesses against the advice of experts who warned it was too soon, and before long, the virus surged again, this time in even more parts of the country. Even after Trump himself was diagnosed with COVID-19 and hospitalized, he continued to downplay the gravity of the disease, tweeting “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” And in the final days of his presidency, Trump used the sideshow of unfounded allegations of voter fraud to divert our attention from the disaster compounding around us.
If even a fraction of the energy that the Trump Administration spent in misleading the public on COVID-19 had been funneled toward science-based messages and recommendations, where might the U.S. be in its fight against COVID-19?
Today, Joe Biden became the new president of the U.S. And his administration might give us an answer to that question. Already, Biden has put public health ahead of politics: recognizing that large public gatherings can trigger the spread of COVID-19, he chose to be inaugurated in front of 200,000 flags, representing supporters he did not want to put at risk of infection. His newly appointed CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, promises regular public briefings and more transparency about the latest COVID-19 science. And Biden and his health team have pledged to right the wrongs of the past year and speed the rollout of vaccines as the first, critical step toward reopening society and returning us to a sense of normalcy.
All of those efforts point toward one, critical goal: earning back the trust of the American people. Without that, there may be vaccines but no vaccinations as people remain skittish about getting the shot, and without vaccinations, there will be no herd immunity that serves as a human wall of defense against the coronavirus. One year from today, let’s hope that trust-in science, scientists and our political leadership-is strong enough to finally keep the virus under control. We can’t afford another year like the last one.
About the authors:
Alice Park, is a staff writer at TIME. She has reported on the breaking frontiers of health and medicine in articles covering issues such as AIDS, anxiety and Alzheimer’s disease. Her latest book is The Stem Cell Hope: How Stem Cell Medicine Can Change Our Lives.
Mandy Oaklander, writes and edits health news for TIME.
Originally published at https://view.newsletters.time.com.
Edited for Brazil by
Joaquim Cardoso do Rosário
Founder of ITS — Instituto Transformação da Saúde