It’s happened so often it’s a running joke with conservatives: public health experts decried mass public gatherings . . . until those gatherings were motivated by George Floyd’s death and calls for racial justice — and all of a sudden the gatherings were OK. But there was never really a clear explanation as to why.
Catherine Troisi, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, studies Covid-19. When, wearing a mask and standing at the edge of a great swell of people, she attended a recent protest in Houston supporting Mr. Floyd, a sense of contradiction tugged at her.
“I certainly condemned the anti-lockdown protests at the time, and I’m not condemning the protests now, and I struggle with that,” Dr. Troisi said. “I have a hard time articulating why that is OK.”
Mark Lurie, a professor of epidemiology at Brown University, described a similar struggle.
“Instinctively, many of us in public health feel a strong desire to act against accumulated generations of racial injustice,” Dr. Lurie said. “But we have to be honest: A few weeks before, we were criticizing protesters for arguing to open up the economy and saying that was dangerous behavior.
“I am still grappling with that.”
This is old news, and the linked New York Times story is an old story, from July 6. I am thinking about it now because I am reading Nicholas Christakis’s book Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live (affiliate link). I was reminded how bizarre it was to see some conservatives’ reaction to the verdict of public health experts like those just quoted: OK, then, if they get to have their gatherings then we get to have ours!
It was as if, as long as you could find hypocrisy among some public health experts, that meant that all public health advice was suddenly worthless.
As Christakis makes clear, it is not. Social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing, and similar common sense practices have been around forever. And despite what you might see in the fever swamps — Alex Berenson, Scott Atlas, and the people who quote them — these measures work. They do not make a virus disappear. But they do reduce transmission significantly.
And yet too many people want to deny that, citing the hypocrisy of the above-mentioned public health experts as evidence.
I see this all too often in any discussion about science where politics enters the picture. If you can find one scientist with whom you politically disagree who is caught saying something contradictory, or silly, it means their point of view is wrong. That’s actually a perfect description of the ad hominem fallacy, but people still use that sort of reasoning every day.
Radical thought here: maybe the best idea is not to cast aside all public health advice, but to find better and more reliable people on whom to rely. Was Dr. Fauci saying “go ahead and protest because racism is a more important public health issue than COVID-19”? No. He was saying he was “very concerned.” And what was Christakis himself saying when the above-linked New York Times article was published? Well, he happens to have been extensively quoted in it. So let’s look!
Others take a more cautious view of the moral stakes. Nicholas A. Christakis, professor of social and natural science at Yale, noted that public health is guided by twin imperatives: to comfort the afflicted and to speak truth about risks to public health, no matter how unpleasant.
These often-complementary values are now in conflict. To take to the street to protest injustice is to risk casting open doors and letting the virus endanger tens of thousands, he said. There is a danger, he said, in asserting that one moral imperative overshadows another.
“The left and the right want to wish the virus away,” Dr. Christakis said. “We can’t wish away climate change, or the epidemic, or other inconvenient scientific truths.”
He said that framing the anti-lockdown protests as white supremacist and dangerous and the George Floyd protests as anti-racist and essential obscures a messier reality.
When he was a hospice doctor in Chicago and Boston, he said, he saw up close how isolation deepened the despair of the dying — a fate now suffered by many in the pandemic, with hospital visits severely restricted. For epidemiologists to turn around and argue for loosening the ground rules for the George Floyd marches risks sounding hypocritical.
“We allowed thousands of people to die alone,” he said. “We buried people by Zoom. Now all of a sudden we are saying, never mind?”
If public health experts turn on a dime, and suddenly minimize the importance of public health measures they advocated until yesterday, it doesn’t mean public health measures are unnecessary. It means those particular “experts” are unreliable and you should not listen to them. But there are plenty of experts who didn’t take the wokeness bait.
Yes, it’s an old discussion, but as we head back into a nasty COVID season, it’s an important one. Find the good experts, and listen to those folks.