What’s at stake in the U.S. election: The Globe and Mail has asked a group of writers to offer their opinions. Scroll to the bottom for links to the full series.
The pandemic must be divided into two periods: Events that transpired before April 3, and those that occurred afterward. The partition falls on the date that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finally reversed course and recommended the use of masks for the general public. The simple intervention has likely saved thousands of lives, yet it took months for the world’s most important public health agency to get it right. What took so long?
The CDC was not alone; almost every medical expert got this one wrong. Many believed the novel coronavirus was transmitted in a way that obviated the need for facial coverings. Others worried that a run on masks would put front-line health care workers at risk. Still others argued a mask mandate would be an unacceptable infringement on civil liberties. On Feb. 29, more than five weeks after coronavirus arrived in North America, the U.S. Surgeon-General tweeted: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” The CDC would spend another month defending this position.
Our most trusted medical authorities missed the mark, and the results were devastating. Uncertainty over masks allowed the virus to tear through major metropolitan areas throughout March, when some hospitals in the United States were overwhelmed, causing the death toll to skyrocket. The CDC’s error in guidance has called into question what it means to be an “expert,” opening the door to all sorts of quackery, conspiracy theories and outright dangerous proposals in the U.S. But it shouldn’t.
March was a disorienting time for those of us on the front lines, as protocols were endlessly edited and revised, and the CDC did its best to keep up with the shifting scientific landscape. Fundamental beliefs about diagnosis, treatment, transmission and prevention changed by the day. It wasn’t until the end of that devastating month that the scientific evidence supporting the widespread use of masks became overwhelming. When it did, the guidance changed. It might not seem like it, but things actually worked as they should.
So I don’t judge people on the comments they made about coronavirus prior to April 3. The first few months of the pandemic were unlike anything we had ever seen. Many of us got things wrong, masks or otherwise. It’s far more useful to judge people on the comments that have been made after April 3. Did political leaders acknowledge the new reality? Did they look for alternate explanations to feed a preconceived narrative? Who stood up to make the difficult decisions?
What matters is how the candidates responded once the science was settled. In this respect, the difference is stark.
President Donald Trump continues to cast doubt upon the utility of masks and physical distancing while endorsing unproven treatments. He is also reportedly flirting with the idea that we should simply let coronavirus run its course so that Americans can build up a natural, herd immunity. One estimate suggests that this approach could result in another half-million American deaths, perhaps more.
Joe Biden, by contrast, has taken a different path. His position is simple: He’s deferring to medical experts. If they say “wear a mask,” he does. If they recommend another lockdown, he’s open to it. This understated approach has surely cost him some support with an exhausted electorate that can become energized by scandal, but it is unquestionably the right thing to do.
What’s at stake in this election is a path forward, one that looks beyond the mistakes of the spring to resurrect the primacy of expertise. The return to normal won’t be easy, but it must be guided by science, not impulse. The United States' health depends upon it.
Matt McCarthy is an associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and author of Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic.