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Won’t Get Fooled Again
Americans’ ongoing distrust of elites bodes poorly for the next public health crisis
The 2008 financial crisis was a political earthquake, though a subterranean one. Hitting weeks before Election Day, its full effect didn’t manifest quickly enough to have a seismic impact on the presidential race. Barack Obama had led throughout most of the campaign and, as expected, was ushered into the White House.
But the aftershocks shook the electorate for years. Adherents of the Tea Party movement protested the massive financial assistance to big business and Wall Street that began under George W. Bush and intensified under Obama. The grassroots backlash created a midterm course-correction that empowered Capitol Hill Republicans, despite the movement’s bitter critique of both parties.
This resentment toward elites, cronies and “the GOP establishment” didn’t fully bloom, however, until the surprising ascension of Donald J. Trump.
When the housing bubble popped, well-connected insiders and industries were bailed out by the Beltway. Other Americans were left to rebuild their lives and bank accounts on their own. This ugly reality convinced everyday Republicans and independents that Washington wasn’t just indifferent to their needs, but actively opposed to them.
In a just world, incompetent financiers and political enablers would have been tried or imprisoned or, at the very least, would have spent the next few years selling pencils on a Wall Street sidewalk. No one called for guillotines (we aren’t France, after all), but defenestrating a hedge-fund manager or two could have had a salutary effect.
The villains should have at least traded their pinstriped suits for a barrel and suspenders. Even a modicum of repentance would have been appreciated. Instead, the malefactors kept their millions while the working schlubs saw their homes sold at auction and scrambled to find new jobs.
The political reaction to that disaster wasn’t immediate, but it was long-lasting. The deep distrust of elites, if not downright cynicism, festers today. We’re now witnessing a similar effect with the dismal local, state and federal reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Should future COVID flare-ups be accompanied by government restrictions, Americans are likely to react quite a bit differently this time around.
Two Weeks to Two Years? Too Bad.
The drumbeat of “two weeks to slow the spread” we started hearing in March 2020 turned into two years, shuttering businesses, locking kids out of schools, barring the faithful from churches and labeling millions of Americans as “nonessential” workers. Anyone who questioned moves such as filling skate parks with sand, forcing masks upon toddlers or mandating yet-to-be-proven vaccines was called a “grandma killer”—often by self-professed science lovers praying before St. Anthony Fauci votive candles.
Three and a half years later, the results are in: Americans believe that the government’s reaction to COVID was abysmal.
Numerous studies have proven that, in general, masks were ineffective at stopping the spread. Blocking children from schoolhouse instruction and socialization throttled their education and devastated their mental health. The vaccines never stopped the transmission, as promised, and had medical complications furiously denied upon their introduction. A lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology is now largely agreed upon as the most likely origin, an obvious conclusion that had been derided as racist for years. (How an insecure biolab was considered more xenophobic than a wet-market pangolin fricassee is hard to fathom.)
The most extreme zero-COVID proponents have yet to apologize and are loath to admit their destructive errors. Fauci continues to haunt cable-news green rooms, while Donald Trump insists that he handled the pandemic perfectly as president. The latter even criticizes red-state governors for opening up too soon or not soon enough, depending on how his golf game went that day.
Not as Forgiving
As happened with government leaders in 2008, COVID policy malefactors not only go unpunished, but they are celebrated by the media and the bureaucracy. One of Trump’s last acts in office was awarding the Medal of Freedom to Dr. Fauci. Meanwhile, formerly hysterical voices in media, “science” and government have simply moved on, eagerly pushing the next moral panic.
But Americans aren’t letting them off the hook. In a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have “suffered a rapid, dramatic decline in public support across many demographics and groups.” This includes a 50% drop among self-identified Republicans and a softening among Democrats and independents, as well as among Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities. The report states that “such an erosion in public trust and confidence, one of the coins of the realm for any national public health institution, is a sign of something deeper, namely serious and widespread concern about deficiencies in CDC’s performance.”
The closest we got to a CDC apology was offered last year by former director Rochelle Walensky. She distributed an internal memo that concluded, “For 75 years, CDC and public health have been preparing for COVID-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations.” Yet, delving into the details of her memo, most valid public criticism was left unmentioned. Instead, Walensky focused on bureaucratic inefficiency, inadequate communication, a “frail” public health infrastructure and an insufficient “operating posture,” whatever that means.
To her credit, she admitted a “need for change came through loud and clear.” The CDC is continuing that work with underwhelming results. The new CDC head, Mandy Cohen, admitted that “trust is easily broken and, as folks know, trust takes time to rebuild.” She’s traveled the country with the typical Washington faux-pology—“mistakes were made”—and supposes that’s good enough to restore confidence.
The agency’s only change so far is standard D.C. fare. Cohen is creating a new communications plan and revamping the CDC website. If that doesn’t fix things, she might even unveil a blue-ribbon committee or a bipartisan task force. Anything but leveling with the public about failures and insisting that the buck stops with the CDC.
The American people are famously forgiving. When a public figure admits an error and accepts responsibility, citizens are quick to let bygones be bygones. Endure a painful news cycle or two, and everyone is eager to move on.
But this time, things seem different. True, most people understand there were very good reasons to get things wrong in the early days of the pandemic. Public health experts disagreed among themselves over the best response to a crisis not faced since the Spanish flu epidemic a century ago. As the pandemic rolled on, however, medical advice and mandates flipped and flopped, with each new change heralded as unquestionable scientific truth. At the same time, other highly credentialed experts were denounced for “misinformation”—many of whom were ultimately proven correct.
Silencing critics and censoring information create an unfortunate breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Many who at first viewed the COVID vaccine with mild skepticism now renounce even common inoculations that have proven successful over decades.
Meanwhile, has Cohen’s desire to build public trust changed the CDC’s behavior? Hardly. Last week, she harshly denounced Florida’s Surgeon General for saying healthy adults under age 65 need not take the latest COVID booster. She calls his advice “unfounded and, frankly, dangerous.” In retrospect, Florida was one of the few states that handled its COVID response pretty well. Despite that success, the DeSantis administration was ridiculed and attacked for its COVID approach.
Cohen’s new-model CDC is clinging to the same playbook that lost public trust in the first place. The results are as expected. According to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, 79% of Democrats say they will “definitely” or “probably” get the new vaccine. For Republicans, that number plummets to 39%, revealing the growing partisan divide on what should be a nonpartisan issue.
A Morning Consult survey from earlier this year showed that a third of Americans don’t trust the CDC on public health issues. Only 42% said they trust the agency “a great deal.” This not only bodes poorly for the agency; far more importantly, it harms public health policy writ large. When, not if, a new virus emerges, how many people will heed accurate warnings? If masking will actually help, who will wear one? If large groups shouldn’t gather, will people cancel their events?
To face the next crisis, the United States needs a competent, effective and trusted public health agency. Another lab leak could arise, or a natural contagion, or even a biological attack. In addition to the damage these scenarios would cause to human lives, they’re also matters of economic and national security.
Reforming the CDC isn’t about new communication initiatives, better funding or shuffling the org chart. The only move guaranteed to restore trust is requiring accountability. Without that, cynicism will grow, conspiracy theories will abound and pronouncements about public health will be ignored. Ultimately, the biggest victim of the government’s disastrous COVID response isn’t the CDC. It’s public health itself. Americans’ distrust of those in power will make us less likely to believe anything they have to say about public health in the future—and that might be a big problem when the next public health crisis arrives.
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