Public-health leaders have sown distrust throughout the pandemic, and the suspension of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the latest example. On one hand, if dangerous clotting is merely the one-in-a-million risk that it is reported to be, then the logic of suspending J&J is difficult to grasp. On the other hand, if health authorities have reason to believe the risk is much greater than one in a million, then they have not been forthcoming with the evidence. Either way, they are not serving the public interest.
The reversal on masks last spring was a similar disservice. Authorities were either genuinely mistaken when they advised against masks, or they were lying to preserve supplies. Either way, they gave the public a reason to discount their advice going forward.
The trust issues continued into the spring and summer of 2020, with three major events standing out. First, the justification for lockdowns changed from avoiding overrun hospitals to minimizing transmission generally. The result has been an endless hodgepodge of restrictions that goes far beyond “15 days to flatten the curve.” That such restrictions often seem to lack an evidentiary basis has added to the public’s skepticism. In fact, it is often difficult to see any relationship at all between lockdowns and viral transmission, but the restrictions persist.
A second breach of trust occurred after Memorial Day. Public-health experts who had deemed lockdowns essential decided to look the other way when Black Lives Matter protesters packed the streets. Over 1,000 experts even signed a letter explaining that BLM protests are more important than containing COVID, but anti-lockdown protests are “rooted in white nationalism” and must be condemned.
Third, schools remained closed even as reasonable evidence in the spring and overwhelming evidence by the fall showed they could be open with minimal risk. In February of this year, reopenings were further delayed after the CDC recommended impractical six-foot distancing in schools. The recommendation was not supported by data, but it was supported by the teachers’ unions with whom the CDC had consulted. More than a month went by before the agency changed course.
Those are the three failures that I find most significant, but the list could be much longer — initial downplaying of the virus, outdoor mask mandates, misleading claims about herd immunity, overly conservative rules for vaccinated people, and so on.
As NR’s editors have argued, reform of the public-health agencies will need to start with removing the incompetents, the self-promoters, and the partisans. But a shift in our own expectations for these agencies is needed as well. Health experts should provide a transparent accounting of the data, but only the people, acting through their elected leaders, can use that data to weigh competing priorities. As long as we continue to allow “The Science” to dictate political decisions, it should not be surprising when scientists act like politicians.