A Pandemic of Ignorance

The main failure in this COVID-19 pandemic has been about knowledge. The United States government was unprepared for dealing with a pandemic, specifically in being unprepared for quickly gathering the data, analyzing it, basing official policies on it, and communicating it to the public. We were blindsided and slow to respond.

We not only have lacked necessary info but, more importantly, lacked leadership in relationship to what we needed to know. Government positions and corporate practices for the most part have not been dependably based on good data nor did those making the decisions emphasize the importance of getting good data. Instead, we’ve too often been handed partisan politics, campaign rhetoric, and slogans.

Unlike in some other countries, US government and major businesses have failed to do mass infection testing, temperature scanning, contact tracing, and app tracking. All of this would’ve offered useful data for controlling the spread of infections and making informed decisions about which actions to take. Compare companies that kept running in the US to some in other countries.

In the US, meatpacking plants that have close working environments weren’t even requiring employees to wear masks and that is insane, as quickly became apparent. A German company, on the other, managed to keep infections down using not only masks but data collection to quickly determine the infected so as to isolate them. The same pattern was seen in how many Asian countries were much more systematic in their control measures. Why did those other places seek out knowledge early on and acted on it while the US decision-makers embraced willful ignorance in hoping everything would be fine?

Even when US leaders had info, they would sometimes keep it a secret, instead of sharing it in a way that could’ve helped. For example, health officials were apparently afraid of their being a run on medical masks and so, instead of being honest with the public, they intentionally lied to us by stating masks offered no protection. This led many to not take the protective gear seriously, including in extended care facilities that weren’t using protective gear.

This lack of transparency and accountability has continued. Governor Reynolds of Iowa has continually repeated that she is basing all her decisions on careful and regular analysis of detailed metrics, but she has never shared any of the supposed data and instead just makes declarations. Or consider how the Trump administration has silenced the CDC by disallowing their official report to go public. Are these officials worried what the public would do or demand if they had full knowledge?

Even now, decisions are being made about reopening businesses, schools, etc without any clear basis on data, at least not data that is being shared with the public. Almost no one in media or government is talking about how the second wave in fall will likely be far worse than anything we’ve seen so far. Many officials are acting like the pandemic is coming to an end and that now it’s time for everything to go back to normal, even as the reality is that waves of infections could continue for years.

Obviously, we still lack the knowledge we need. It’s true we know that COVID-19 isn’t as deadly as first thought, although it still is far more deadly than the common flu. All these months after the pandemic began spreading globally, there is no mass infection testing in the US nor are places of business implementing the basic tools like temperature scans used elsewhere from the beginning.

So, we aren’t sure how many Americans have been infected. On top of that, despite some hoping herd immunity will save us, our knowledge about immunity to this novel coronavirus is next to nothing. There might be some short term immunity, but even then it might not last long enough to prevent the same people getting infected again with the second wave. And no one knows if we will have a vaccine soon or ever.

Why is the US economy being reopened when even the most basic message of mask-wearing hasn’t been consistently and effectively communicated to much of the population? Instead, most of the major leaders are refusing to wear masks while speaking in public and so are modeling to Americans that they shouldn’t wear masks. Are we still at the level of not even agreeing on masks?

What lesson have we Americans learned from our mistakes during this pandemic? Have we learned any lessons? Would our leadership respond differently if the same situation happens again? When this pandemic began, we were in a state of collective ignorance and we were caught without even the capacity to ameliorate our ignorance. So, we acted blindly. In the same state of collective ignorance, we’d be forced to respond in the same way again or something similar.

The worst part is that this demonstrates the culture of ignorance that dominates in the US, as part of a broader failure of democracy. Much of the American leadership is brazen in pushing ignorance and much of the American public is apathetic in accepting it. There has been little political will to pursue data-driven policy and to put respect for knowledge front and center. Sadly, in the understandable mistrust by the public, those officials and experts worthy of trust are equally dismissed as the rest.

Our response in American society has been based primarily on ideology. The related problem in the US is that, in our reactionary hyper-individualism, a large part of the American population is dismissive to the very concept of public health, as if no individual should ever sacrifice the slightest freedom to save the lives of others. No healthy society can function that way.

Some of the most successful methods, besides masks, have been contact tracing and tracking apps. But many Americans would call that authoritarianism. It’s understandable that we should be cautious about what we allow in a society that aspires to democracy (aspires, if rarely succeeds). The problem is when paranoia destroys the culture of trust that is essential to a democracy. By promoting mistrust, the sad result is that authoritarianism becomes inevitable. Truth becomes whatever is declared by those with the most power and influence, by those who control the media and other platforms.

That is exactly what President Donald Trump has taken advantage of, in his own brand of authoritarianism. He loves to play on people’s fears, to scapegoat and attack all sources of authority other than himself so as to muddy the water. In his authoritarian worldview, US workers should be forced to go back to work with nothing in place to protect their lives because to an authoritarian workers are expendable and replaceable. This was his position from the beginning and no new data was ever going to change this position.

Yet most Americans are opposed to fully reopening the economy. That is largely because the top US leadership has utterly failed in the most basic test of human decency, even ignoring all of the deception and demagoguery. Americans don’t trust Trump or many other figures of authority, including the capitalist class asking for Americans to sacrifice their lives for the profit of others, and they aren’t sure who to trust. If some basic protections were put into place as is done in certain other countries, we could begin to rebuild some public trust.

The American public health crisis first and foremost is a public trust crisis. And it is a crisis that has been a long time coming. If not remedied, it could become an existential crisis. And the only remedy would be democratic reform through an informed public. That means the public will have to demand knowledge or, failing that, will have to educate themselves. A functioning democracy with transparency and accountability is the best preparation for any crisis, but that would require nurturing a culture of knowledge and learning, a shared respect for intellect and expertise.