Re “Put the straw man of pandemic denial out of his misery” (Ideas, Dec. 27): I am compelled to comment on the authors’ premise that the “myth” of COVID-19 denial deflects blame from the policy failures of politicians. Public policy in a public health emergency, in a sane world, ought to be as much removed from politics as possible. Unfortunately, Donald Trump and his allies made the pandemic all about politics right from the start. Trump admittedly deceived Americans at the outset, spouted nonsense and conspiracy theories, and was clearly concerned about only two things: his reelection chances and the stock market. Public health took a back seat to creating a self-serving narrative that put the public at risk. Republican governors who recklessly followed Trump’s lead contributed to preventable spread of the virus and tragic deaths.
Dissent is healthy in a democracy. Equally important is that dissent be informed, the product of information gleaned from credible sources with expertise in relevant fields. To downplay the susceptibility of many Americans to disinformation that has informed beliefs and behaviors relative to the virus is delusional. To deny that irresponsible behavior tied to denialism has been a major contributor to the virus’s spread is disingenuous. To equate Trump’s disastrous performance with the conscientious, science-based leadership of public figures like Governor Andrew Cuomo and Dr. Anthony Fauci is laughable. The public figures most culpable for policy failures relative to COVID-19 are largely the same people who have fostered COVID denialism.
So many assertions by professors Jacob Hale Russell and Dennis Patterson are either dead wrong or blind to larger points that their arguments are a needless distraction and impediment to the valiant efforts of disease experts, health care providers, elected leaders, and communities to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
They state that Americans are “largely complying with public health recommendations,” a claim easily refuted by the level of airplane travel during the holiday season and the fact that new infections and ICU usage are surging higher than ever.
They say we should ask if a person has a “good-faith basis for their belief” and that “skepticism is not the same as denial.” I would vigorously disagree, however, when the good faith and skepticism are based on fraudulent “science” amplified by a president who has spread disinformation from the beginning of the pandemic. Reliance on President Trump, his non-expert appointees like Dr. Scott Atlas and Dr. Sean Conley, and right-wing media for guidance cannot be deemed a good-faith basis. Alternative facts are by definition a denial of reality that we can’t abide during our worst pandemic in 100 years.
Russell and Patterson say that pandemic denial is not really a problem. However, a commonly heard refrain is someone saying, “I take this virus seriously but . . . ” The “but” is then followed by a wish list of things the person wants to do, regardless of the existence of the virus.
This is like saying, “I take gravity seriously but . . . I want to step out of this 10th story window, fall to the pavement below, and experience no harmful consequences.”
Was it denial of the pandemic when guests at a Millinocket, Maine, wedding socialized indoors, unmasked, for hours, leading to more than 100 cases of COVID-19 and eight deaths? Maybe, maybe not. But it was definitely denial by those guests that the known ways that this virus spreads somehow applied to them.
The same goes for the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. Were attendees in denial? Signs there said, “[Expletive] the virus.” So they weren’t in denial of the virus’s existence, just in denial that it mattered to them. As a result, they spread the virus they disdained, and illness and death, all over the upper Midwest.
Every far-flung family that gathered at Thanksgiving was in denial — not of the virus, but of what it means. US hospitals are now overflowing as a result. Every indoor, unmasked party, every indoor, unmasked religious gathering, is evidence of denial. And denial, like the virus, and like gravity itself, won’t go away if we pretend it isn’t there.