Whether Americans like it or not, the COVID-19 pandemic is now political. In truth, the coronavirus has been synonymous with partisan polarization since lockdowns became ubiquitous.
The battle lines are drawn between “public consensus”—generally speaking, Democratic public officials and the mainstream media—and the skeptics, who question the groupthink favoring economic restrictions and strict lockdowns. Case in point: One recent New York Times article criticized Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, for “refusing to issue mandates” to slow the spread of the coronavirus. According to the Times, Reynolds’ skepticism “flout[s] the guidance of infectious disease experts, who say that universal masking and social distancing are essential to limiting the virus’s spread.”
The media narrative is this: If you’re pro-lockdown, you’re pro-science. If you’re anti-lockdown, you’re anti-science. The logical conclusion is that dissenters fall on the “wrong side of history”—not unlike the fate assigned to critics of gay marriage or gender identity politics.
There is no clear consensus on these matters, which may be why so much energy goes into strenuously asserting that there is. While many infectious disease experts do indeed favor more restrictive economic measures, many others are less optimistic about sweeping government mandates.
Earlier this month, Drs. Jay Bhattacharya (Harvard University), Sunetra Gupta (Oxford University), and Martin Kulldorff (Stanford University)—three of the world’s leading epidemiologists—came together in Massachusetts to sign the “Great Barrington Declaration,” a coalition letter that voiced their “grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies.” The three “infectious disease experts”—to quote the Times—advocate for an approach called “Focused Protection,” which would allow low-risk Americans to live their lives normally while better protecting their high-risk counterparts.
The three epidemiologists are not alone. In under a month, the Great Barrington Declaration has been signed by more than 11,100 public health scientists and over 31,000 medical practitioners, not to mention hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens. The co-signers include dozens of other epidemiologists, including Dr. Alexander Walker, the former Chair of Epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Do their opinions matter less than those of Dr. Anthony Fauci? Of course not, but dissenting opinions are apparently invalid because they’re not part of the “scientific consensus” (whatever that means).
Not only did the Times refuse to mention the dissent within the epidemiologist community, but the Great Barrington Declaration was instantly sullied by smears and scare tactics. Tyler Cowen, an opinion columnist at Bloomberg, referred to the Great Barrington Declaration as a “dangerous libertarian strategy.” Brian Resnick, a science reporter for Vox.com, described it as an “ethical nightmare.” Derrick Jackson, a fellow at the Center for Science and Democracy, even accused the COVID-19 dissenters of “herding people to slaughter.”
Then there is Google, which waged algorithmic warfare against the Great Barrington Declaration. According to Dr. Bhattacharya, Google’s algorithm “shadow banned” the letter soon after it was published. The Wall Street Journal confirmed that “herd immunity,” which Dr. Bhattacharya and his colleagues see as the ultimate goal, was linked to uniformly negative media coverage on the first page of Google Search.
This is counterproductive at best and deeply deceptive at worst. The coronavirus presents us with a wide range of complex challenges that can only be met with suboptimal solutions among which we must choose. Economic lockdowns may mitigate the risk of transmission, but not without undermining business activity, job creation, and wage growth (which in turn undermines public health indirectly). The “Focused Protection” may boost economic growth, but it may also amplify public-health risks. Either way, there will be winners and losers.
For the record, I am partial to less restrictive government mandates, but the best possible strategy maximizes the number of potential winners while minimizing the number of potential losers. I may be wrong.
Is there a “right” approach? Only time will tell. There certainly is no perfect one, making it all the more disingenuous for the group-thinkers to vilify those who dare to dissent. Disrespecting those with whom we disagree is never the path to consensus, only further division.
As with most public-policy debates, there is nuance to the COVID-19 pandemic. Being in favor of lockdowns does not necessarily make you a Marxist. Being against lockdowns does not necessarily make you a country bumpkin on the wrong side of history.
The dissenters may not even be “anti-lockdown” through and through: Given that nearly half of all U.S. deaths related to COVID-19 are linked to nursing homes, Dr. Bhattacharya and his colleagues still argue for the sequestering of care home residents, frequent testing of nursing home staff members, and other measures. They are not arguing for a laissez-faire response.
The COVID-19 pandemic affects us all, directly or indirectly—hundreds of millions of Americans with one shared experience. Let’s be honest with each other: If we cannot discuss and debate like adults, American society is doomed to fail.