Indignity Vol. 2, No. 78: Ignorance is strength.


Indignity Vol. 2, No. 78: Ignorance is strength.
60 Minutes via Youtube

The Pandemic Winners Wash Their Hands

ON SEPTEMBER 18, Joe Biden told 60 Minutes that "the pandemic is over." I'm tired by now of juxtaposing Covid's death toll against the messaging from the authorities, but for the record the number was about 500. Five hundred dead that day, and the day before, and the day after, too.

The facts keep grinding against the rhetoric. Neither one shows the slightest inclination to yield to the other. Two days after Biden's remarks, the New York Times reported about what it described as a chronic crisis facing the Centers for Disease Control: "Decades of underinvestment in public health information systems has crippled efforts to understand the pandemic, stranding crucial data in incompatible data systems so outmoded that information often must be repeatedly typed in by hand."

The Times story, read at face value, made a persuasive case that the country's ability to respond to pandemics is gravely constrained by "antiquated data systems," in which vital information struggles to flow through "a digital pipeline riddled with huge holes and obstacles." It sounded, on those terms, like an earnest call to action, to get a vital, lifesaving piece of government infrastructure up and running.

Read in the light—or the shadow—of Biden's remarks, though, the pleas for shoring up the pandemic information system came across as gross misdirection, if not a cruel joke:

“We can’t be in a position where we have to do this for every disease and every outbreak,” Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the C.D.C. director, said in an interview. “If we have to reinvent the wheel every time we have an outbreak, we will always be months behind.”

This was the CDC director who cut the recommended Covid isolation period from ten days to five, and who stopped recommending that people make sure they test negative before going back to work. Assume you're not still infected with Covid, and you can act as if you're not still infected with Covid.

It does seem true that our patchwork of state and local medical information is keeping our national public health system from being able to properly assess the pandemic. But it seems just as true that our national pandemic strategy has relied on nobody being able to properly assess the pandemic. To see Biden administration officials complaining that their data sources can't keep up with the vastness of the pandemic is like seeing Facebook officials complain that their content-moderation policies couldn't keep up with the Myanmar genocide, because they had expanded their service to blanket the country before employing anyone who could read the languages there.

As always, the failed pandemic response becomes the reason for the failed pandemic response. How could officials justify keeping schools closed, if bars and restaurants were open? How could you maintain mask requirements on the subway, if private facilities were dropping their mask requirements? How can you require vaccination to enter some places, if other places don't require it anymore?

Somewhere far upstream from the current unsolvable data crisis, months and months of policy decisions ago, was the choice not to invest in universal, comprehensive free testing. The government could have made itself the default distributor and recorder of tests, rather than tossing a few supplemental test kits in the mail and otherwise leaving the public to buy their own kits or find testing centers, in an ad hoc system built on individual action. Tracking the progress of the pandemic could have been a foundational priority of the Biden administration's pandemic response.

Instead, the administration focused on vaccination, to the exclusion of every other management tool. With enough vaccinations, the plan was, the virus would be defeated, and no one would have to worry about testing or tracing or masks or all the other annoying restrictions. People could just get back to normal, and the economy could get back to normal, and the poll numbers could also and especially get back to normal. Maybe those things could even get back to normal first, ahead of the vaccinations.

More information would only get in the way. The success of the back-to-normal movement relied, again and again, on the message that preventive measures were endless and irrational—that people who wanted to keep mask mandates and vaccine requirements and closures wanted those things to go on forever, with no possible relief. But what mask advocates wanted, and what the majority of the public supported when polled about it, was to maintain an ongoing program of targeted interventions: wearing masks when and where the risk of transmission was high, restricting activities while the crisis was acute.

The government response, though, denied people that targeting information. When the information was there and it looked unfavorable, Walensky simply changed the classification standards for the risk map. If there was no good way to track the reasons for people to use masks, then masking would become the unreasonable choice.

So now we're back to normal. A kid can go to camp like normal, and end up catching Covid. My mom can go on a birdwatching trip abroad, like normal, and end up sick with Covid in a country with no Paxlovid. I can go to an indoor party, talk animatedly face to face with old friends I haven't seen in months or years, and find out that one of the guests was spreading Covid. Life is just like it was before, give or take the part where everyone is constantly on the edge of a knife. Give or take 500 people a day.

What's the point of worrying about our ability to track the next pandemic, then? The purpose of tracking a disease would be to do something about it. What we've learned from Covid, our triumphant national lesson, is that we won't.

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