When COVID-19 Science Comes Home To Roost
We are in this moment precisely because this administration—and too many of its predecessors—have stood in the way of science.
In my childhood, our nation’s war with itself was seared into me by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. For succeeding generations, 9/11, and the massacres at Columbine, Sandy Hook Elementary, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, as well as the rampant gun deaths in poverty-stricken cities, shot children out of the cannon of innocence into a desultory world of permanent war abroad and acceptable collateral damage at home from political cowardice over gun control.
Now comes the coronavirus crisis, robbing today’s kids of normal childhood and stealing 140,000—and counting–of their parents, grandparents, great grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts. The virus is in uncontrolled spread in 20 states as of July 20, including most of the Sunbelt, according to The Atlantic’s tracking. According to July 21 New York Times tracking, 41 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are seeing an increase of coronavirus cases over the last 14 days. The death toll is now predicted to go well past 200,000 by November 1, according to at least three forecasts kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
A delusional president, a host of sycophant governors, and a handful of greedy business leaders have, in essence, declared that we should trust them more than we do doctors, more than epidemiologists, more than public health experts, more than even common sense.
The fact that so many of these deaths were entirely preventable makes this one of the nation’s greatest betrayals of its people by its own government. It is a fratricide no less deadly than murderous repressions by despots. A delusional president, a host of sycophant governors, and a handful of greedy business leaders have, in essence, declared that we should trust them more than we do doctors, more than epidemiologists, more than public health experts, more than even common sense. Their arrogance, incompetence, and racism has literally choked many in this country—of all colors—to death, and shown us how, when you assassinate science, a massacre needs no bullets, bombs, or gas.
Unmasking Brian Kemp
For the latest example, look no further than Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, one of many governors who reopened their states despite no data suggesting that the virus was quelled. Georgia is now paying the price with a tripling of the 7-day average of new daily cases. Has the spike in cases caused contrition or caused Kemp to take belated action? No. Instead of scrambling for medical advice, he is suing Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms for mandating protective face coverings.
After initial uncertainty in the crisis by world health experts over the efficacy of masks, researchers now conclude they are key to blunting the spread of the coronavirus. A major review of the latest evidence published three weeks ago in the journal The Lancet said mask use “could result in a large reduction in risk of infection.” The University of Washington’s forecasting models estimate that universal mask use could save 41,000 US lives by November, including 1,000 lives saved in Georgia.
Bottoms herself has been infected with the virus, joining legions of other African Americans bearing a disproportionate brunt of the pandemic. Nationwide, the Black death rate is more than double the White death rate. In Georgia, the Black death rate is three times higher.
This appears to stir not a scintilla of empathy in Kemp, cited by even conservative columnist George Will for being purger-in-chief of Black voters as Georgia secretary of state. Kemp won the governorship over African American Stacey Abrams with overwhelming support from White voters who support President Trump—easily the most overtly racist president of modern times. Kemp reopened the state over the vigorous objections and minimal input of Bottoms and other African American mayors of predominately African American cities hit hard by the virus.
The Confederate flag and monuments of the Lost Cause may be coming down in the wake of protests over systemic racism, but it is almost as if eschewing face coverings is the new Stars and Bars. Trump, who defends monuments to the traitors who fought to maintain slavery, refused to be photographed wearing a mask until very recently. A July 13 Gallup poll found that just 46 percent of Republicans wear a face covering very often or always, compared to 94 percent of Democrats. An Associated Press poll back in May found that 83 percent of Black people wore masks outside the home compared to 64 percent of White people.
Earlier in the crisis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott also banned desperate municipalities from enacting mask mandates with fines. Only now, as the virus has spiraled out of control, have Abbott and other conservative governors in states such as Alabama, Arkansas and West Virginia begun issuing mask orders of their own. But even these orders are not coming fast enough to stop the nation from hitting a new single-day record of 75,000 infections, doubling the single-day record in the first peak in April. Their plantation mentality was summed up in a tweet by Kemp in announcing his lawsuit against Atlanta:
“This lawsuit is on behalf of the Atlanta business owners and their hardworking employees who are struggling to survive during these difficult times.”
“Business owners” come first, even as the national single-day national death toll, which dropped with lockdowns to a low of 257 in late June, has now climbed back close to 1,000. Left unspoken is that most business owners who sit in offices out of the way of the virus are White, deploying essential workers headlong into the virus who are often disproportionately Black and Brown.
Governors also used the excuse of “personal freedom” in their earlier pooh-pooing of masks, euphemistic for white Americans who reject any connection to the crisis. While one in three African Americans told a Washington Post poll last month that they personally knew someone who died of COVID-19, only 1 in 11 White respondents could say the same thing. Even Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, despite becoming the nation’s first governor to contract the coronavirus, and despite hitting a new daily record of infections on July 15, is still refusing to issue a state mask mandate, saying, “We believe in freedoms.”
Decades of politicizing science comes home to roost
Just as Malcolm X said JFK’s 1963 assassination represented the nation’s chickens of hate coming home to roost (the Birmingham church bombing that killed four Black girls was earlier that year), the same could be said about COVID-19, with the current death toll as this nation’s punishment for a half century of sidelining science and too often reducing scientists to political pawns in an effort to delay action against polluters, gun makers, tobacco and trash food companies or to deal with issues such as climate change, gun violence, cancer, obesity, or environmental justice.
The last time the White House offered more than a decade’s worth of bipartisan sustained support for science was back in the 1960s and early 70s. The period started with President Kennedy’s mission to the moon and the embrace of Rachel Carson’s argument in Silent Spring about the perils of nature-killing chemical pollution. It ended with Richard Nixon signing the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and signing into existence the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Since then, science and environmentalism have too often been treated as partisan issues, beginning with President Reagan’s infamous appointments in the 1980s of Anne Gorsuch Burford to head EPA and James Watt to run Interior. Both were overtly hostile to the stated missions of their respective agencies. In the 2000s, President George W. Bush drove a huge partisan wedge between the parties on the environment. He froze EPA staffing, undermined moderate EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman by censoring key parts of scientific analysis on climate change and pulled the United States out of the Kyoto climate agreement.
All that pales compared with the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back 100 air, water and chemical environmental regulations by the New York Times’s latest count. Many of those regulations protect us from the pollution that causes asthma, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other chronic illnesses that put people at more risk of worse outcomes from COVID-19. Many studies show how African Americans and Latinx live disproportionately near toxic facilities and bear a disproportionate burden of fine particulate matter that kills more than 100,000 people a year. The American Lung Association says that we are now back up to 45.8 percent of the nation’s population living with unhealthy levels of either fine particulate matter or ozone.
The Trump administration is going to the length of literally driving science out of Washington. The science and economic analysis offices of the Department of Agriculture have been physically banished to Kansas City, losing two-thirds of their staff in the process. The Bureau of Land Management and its scientists have been banished to Colorado, with The Hill reporting that only 68 of its 220 employees agreed to make the move. It is hard to see the rationale for either of these moves as anything but an attempt to force longstanding career science staff to resign.
Success in sinking the data
If the administration’s war on science was not on full enough global display with Trump’s pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, then it sure is now with COVID-19. The administration’s chain of ignorant decisions have toppled into dominoes of death: The refusal to create a national strategy to deal with the virus; the sloth on testing and tracing; the sidelining of the CDC; the constant undercutting of infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci; the time wasted on Trump’s poisonous home remedies; and the crass attempts by Trump to use COVID’s economic crisis to accelerate the gutting of environmental protections.
Administration officials including the president have displayed virtually no sympathy for the dead, particularly the deaths in Black and Brown communities. The New York Times even had to sue the CDC to get a more complete set of data on COVID’s impact on Latinx and African Americans. And the CDC itself is in racial turmoil as more than 1,200 employees, have signed a letter saying that a toxic atmosphere has marginalized Black employees within the agency and hampered its response to the pandemic.
Compounding that have been governors who themselves ignored state scientists and public health officials and mayors pleading for help. Besides the obstinance of Kemp and Abbott, perhaps no other governor symbolizes the rejection of science—and therefore of reality—as does Ron DeSantis of Florida. While the Northeast was laid low by COVID-19, DeSantis that his state was a “success.” Now it seems clear that what he was most successful at was disappearing his state’s data; as a whistleblower says she was fired for refusing to cook the books on virus infection to justify an aggressive reopening.
On July 16, former state data scientist Rebekah Jones filed a formal complaint against Florida’s health department. Her attorney, Rick Johnson, said in a statement: “These efforts to falsify the numbers are a pattern and practice in Florida government that goes on to this day. [Gov.] Ron DeSantis has routinely given false numbers to the press.” On July 15, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that the state may still be secretly manipulating its data to minimize the number of positive COVID-19 tests.
The result of falsifying numbers, manipulating data and ignoring science is painfully evident in our enormous death toll. On July 16 the Center for Public Integrity obtained a July 14 document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force. It says that 18 states currently experiencing uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 should enact stricter social distancing protocols, including mandating masks outside of the home.
True to the White House form, the document has not been made public. At the same time, the Trump administration told hospitals in the middle of a pandemic to send COVID data directly to Health and Human Services, run by former drug industry executive Alex Azar and not to the long-trusted CDC, run by medical scientists. Hospital officials in Missouri and Kansas are already saying they cannot access the data in the new HHS system.
The head of the Missouri Hospital Association told National Public Radio, “All evidence suggests that Missouri’s (COVID-19) numbers are headed in the wrong direction. And, for now, we will have very limited situational awareness. That’s all very bad news.”
It is really bad news because Missouri is also in the grips of a Trump sycophant governor, Mike Parson, who reopened his state when COVID-19 cases were increasing. In yet more plantation mentality, Parson said in May: “When we open the state up, if you’ve got to go back to work, if your boss calls and says you have to go back to work, you have to go back to work.”
On July 14, Missouri recorded 1,036 new coronavirus cases, tripling its spring high, just like Georgia. Yet on July 17, he defiantly said children must go back to school in the fall. He dubiously claimed that even if they do get COVID-19, “they’re going to get over it.” Parson did not explain how teachers, school staff, bus drivers or family members with preexisting conditions would “get over it,” if they are infected by children. A new study out of South Korea found that youth 10-to-19 years of age spread the virus as effectively as adults.
On the same day Parson downplayed the impact of COVID in schools, Kemp did the same, even though several Atlanta-area districts have already said the fall will start with virtual learning. He said schools could handle the pandemic “just like you do with a stomach bug or a flu or anything else.”
That was on the heels of White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany last week saying that “science should not stand in the way” of school openings. We are in this moment precisely because this administration—and too many of its predecessors—have stood in the way of science. And, for that, the excessive number of deaths from COVID-19 are like chickens coming home to roost.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a 2018 winner from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, a 10-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists and a Pulitzer Prize finalist and co-author of Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock (2015). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org