Even after widespread lockdowns, the United States has failed to stomp out the coronavirus and again finds itself in a rapid surge of cases. Public health experts place particular blame on a lack of leadership.
These experts are increasingly frustrated with American political leadership from the President on down that has repeatedly shirked its national role, passed responsibility onto citizens to decide for themselves, and turned simple public health measures into divisive, partisan talking points.
President Donald Trump and many of his supporters don’t wear masks – one of the simplest and cheapest layers of protection in dealing with a respiratory virus. And many state and local leaders have been slow to require mask wearing when you can’t social distance.
“To turn it into a political act is exceedingly undermining the health of the nation,” said Cheryl Healton, the dean of the NYU School of Global Public Health.
“When you make it a partisan thing or when you simply as the leader mock it conceptually, mock the disease, make up things about the disease trajectory that are not true, talk about manners in which you can protect yourself that are false, when you have someone who wants to live in that anti-science narrative when we are the victim of a major dilemma that can only be solved by a science-based intervention, that’s a huge problem.”
CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta said American leaders are still not having the necessary discussions to solve the crisis.
“We’re still having these arguments about whether or not we should put these band-aids on the problem, such as masks,” Gupta said Thursday. “(They’re) effective band-aids, but still band-aids on this problem. And we’re still not even sure we want to do that.”
“We’ve got a patient bleeding out in front of us, we know what to do, and we are not doing it. And it’s frustrating for sure.”
The frustrations reflect the ever-present tensions between our collective responsibility to each other and our individualism, said Dr. Leana Wen, former Baltimore health commissioner and a visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
But when politicians attack their evidence-based and non-ideological advice, you get major problems, Wen said.
“If President Trump or some other elected official is making mask-wearing a political or partisan issue, then they’re also saying that the advice from public health experts is partisan, and then public health as a whole loses the credibility that it really needs in order to guide this pandemic,” she said.
Public health v. private health
The idea that people can decide what’s right for themselves while a contagious disease spreads is “absurd,” Healton said.
“Any one of us can be a walking weapon because we don’t know we’re infected and we’re infecting others,” she said. “So the way it’s been described very articulately by Tony Fauci is that (wearing a mask) you’re protecting yourself and protecting others, and at any moment you don’t know which (you are).”
The steps needed to slow and stop this pandemic are not a mystery. Public health experts have made clear what is needed: social distancing, mask-wearing, hand-washing, testing, contact tracing, isolating the sick and, in the near future, treatment and vaccination.
Dr. Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox, said experts foresaw a pandemic would come one day, but they didn’t expect the leadership vacuum at the top.
“The thing we did not see coming was not the virus. We didn’t see the total absence of the federal government leadership that we have become accustomed to in every other outbreak,” he said. “We know what to do.”
New York, once the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, used these strategies and an extended lockdown to cut down on its outbreak of cases.
Now on the other side of the pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo openly mocked political leaders who he said put ideology over science.
“You can’t have a political theory on how to deal with the virus. You can’t. It’s a virus. It doesn’t respond to political theory. It responds to science and data,” he said.
That message may be beginning to get through, albeit slowly. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott halted the state’s reopening plan amid a surge, North Carolina mandated masks across the state and localities in southern Florida have implemented orders requiring masks – despite some citizens’ vocal displeasure.
Cuomo said it was important for local and state leaders to take more responsibility rather than passing the buck to citizens.
“I understand it’s not easy. I understand it’s not popular,” he said Wednesday. “Welcome to government in the middle of a global crisis.”
In the long term, those that follow the evidence will have the best results, Dr. Wen said.
“The best we can do is with the evidence that we have. I think that history will bear out that those elected officials who allowed public health leaders to guide them and to lead with public health and science, I think we will see that those are the places where most lives were saved,” she said.