Noble lies often come to ignoble ends. Consider the current pandemic, in which too many public health officials and politicians decided that we can’t handle the truth. At first, they worried that the American people would panic. Then, they worried that Americans were not sufficiently afraid.
Now, as coronavirus vaccines are being approved and distributed amidst a deadly spike in cases, people are noticing the difference between when scientists conduct genuine science and when they play at social psychology in the name of public health.
The vaccine development, testing, and production of Operation Warp Speed appear to have been an incredible success, beating the expectations of countless critics. In contrast, public health messaging and measures have often been inconsistent and counterproductive.
Of course, a variety of factors have led to this result. As we’ve learned more about the virus, our understanding of how to respond to it has evolved. Because many people, including politicians, are involved, public health responses have varied for many reasons, including (of course) politics.
Furthermore, there was no way out of this pandemic without difficult tradeoffs, making it harder to get things right. Almost everyone has had to alter course at some point. For instance, Sweden, long hailed by lockdown opponents, recently decided to close high schools in response to a second wave of infections.
But the inevitable imperfections of government responses to the pandemic have been made worse by deliberate decisions to try to manage people with falsehoods, rather than telling them the truth. Examples abound from the early days of the pandemic, from the decision to advise the public against wearing masks, to officials and politicians of both parties (including President Trump) downplaying the threat of the coronavirus. For example, several New York City public health officials, as well as politicians, encouraged residents to get out and go about life as the virus began its spread through their city.
These choices were driven by a lack of trust in the public. It was assumed, for instance, that if people were told masks might reduce viral spread, they would then panic-buy all the masks they could, leaving none for health-care workers. Likewise, President Trump defended tweets and comments that minimized the dangers posed by the virus by saying that he did not want people to panic.
This fear of public panic seems to have been mistaken; people mostly kept their heads when the brunt of the pandemic arrived. Instead of civilization-rending upheaval, some folks bought too much toilet paper. Much of the public, it turned out, could handle the truth.
But as the pandemic worse on, many politicians, public health officials, and media figures began to fear, not that the public was too prone to panic, but that people were not fearful enough. This was not entirely unfounded, for some have been reckless in their behavior and too quick to dismiss a disease that has been the leading contributor to the more than 356,000 excess deaths in 2020. Yet overreaction is not a good response to this problem. Unfortunately, that is what has happened in many cases.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is shutting down restaurants, despite acknowledging their relatively small role in virus spread. Los Angeles is trying to force everyone to just stay home. Across the country, not only have schools been shut down, but even children’s playgrounds have been closed, despite being low-risk.
In the early days of the pandemic, such mistakes could be forgiven as accidental or ill-informed overreach amid a crisis. As time wore on, however, this excuse lost plausibility. These actions suggest that many of the restrictions put in place to combat the pandemic are theater — the public health equivalent of the TSA.
Overly-stringent measures may be meant to emphasize the dangers of the disease, but instead, they’re arguably making things worse. In discussions of public health, the line between effective messaging and manipulation can be blurry.
A recent New York Times article, for instance, discussed how to use social pressure, rather than a just-the-facts approach, in public health. Yet once people believe experts are manipulative or hypocritical they cease to listen.
Indeed, all of the COVID-19 disinformation on the internet has probably done less harm than the hypocrisy (and hierarchy) displayed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and other politicians — not to mention the leftist protest exceptions to all of the rules on public gatherings.
But the problem runs deeper than hypocrisy. The fundamental issue is that although scientists can tell us what actions risk viral spread, they cannot decide for us how to balance the risks of the virus against the risks of our countermeasures, and just how much of life we should sacrifice to reduce the viral threat. There has too often been a tendency to speak in terms of risk elimination, rather than mitigation.
In just one example of many, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam recently played amateur theologian, telling Christians to stay home from church. Setting aside Northam’s religious ignorance (corporate worship is extremely important for Christians, who are called to live in communion with each other), people will not live forever like prisoners under house arrest.
Therefore, public health officials and the politicians they advise should have been much more focused on explaining how to reduce risk while maintaining some elements of normalcy in life. We are physical beings. We cannot live only in the cloud.
To continue using churches as an example, most, including my own, have taken the pandemic very seriously. We have worn masks, distanced, disinfected, sanitized our hands, worshiped outdoors when possible, and streamed services online for those who are home on a given Sunday. Consequently, we have not had an outbreak even as we have maintained the gathering together of believers.
The hostility many officials have shown to even such careful and partial returns to normal life may explain why many Americans have tuned out the government’s advice and even ignored its edicts.
Most Americans understand that this disease is a real danger, and they do not want to be reckless with their health and the lives of others. But they will discount hypocritical and lying officials, as well as experts who expect them to live like prisoners, and who seem to be trying to manipulate, rather than inform. Without leaders they trust, people will decide for themselves what feels safe.