The short but tragic history of the federal government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has been shaped by the same corporate-backed science denialism that has long been deployed by the tobacco, fossil fuel, chemical, and mining industries to fight public health and environmental regulation. That denialism has infected the body of the Republican party and now the Trump administration.
Experts in manufacturing scientific doubt on behalf of corporate polluters have been installed in influential posts, shaping the work of key government agencies. Hundreds of dedicated, career scientists have left the agencies, leaving huge gaps in expertise. World-renowned scientists were dismissed from advisory committees and important public health functions, like the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, have been shuttered.
We are reaping the consequences of the rejection of science and expertise that Republican politicians and their corporate allies have sown for decades.
We are now reaping the consequences of the rejection of science and expertise Republican politicians and their corporate allies have sown for decades. Long before the current crisis, they belittled the science that documented the dangers of tobacco, firearms, numerous toxic chemicals and pollutants, and, of course, the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases. They frequently accused public health scientists of being scaremongers seeking to advance their own careers or political ideology.
These manufacturers of doubt are instrumental in corporate campaigns to stop government efforts to protect the public from deadly products. Defenders of cigarettes were able to manufacture doubt about the scientific evidence for decades before their lies became so unconvincing that even their most stalwart defenders had to acknowledge the truth. Generous funding by the Koch family and fossil fuel companies, for instance, supported a small group of questionable scientists and promoted their rejection of overwhelming scientific consensus around climate change. The same generous funding, in the form of campaign contributions, motivated Republican politicians to embrace the science fiction of climate change denialists. Only recently, as extreme weather events and rising sea levels render the effects undeniable, have some Republican politicians acknowledged the enormity of the climate crisis.
President Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has followed a trajectory similar to the Republican party’s response to the dangers produced by the tobacco, fossil fuel, chemical, and mining industries, but telescoped over weeks instead of years: Scientists’ concerns about significant harm are met with skepticism and denial, then acknowledgement and government action only once the truth becomes overwhelmingly clear, illuminated by disaster and tragedy. The president initially rejected the scientific evidence about the transmissibility and spread of Covid-19; only when the facts became indisputable have President Trump and Republican leadership, followed by their allies at Fox News, right-wing talk radio and think tanks, accepted the truth. But these several weeks of denial and delay in mounting a comprehensive federal response may prove to have catastrophic results.
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To understand the powerful impact of the degradation of federal scientific leadership, compare the timeline of government actions across the globe. The rapid and deadly spread of the virus in Wuhan, China, alerted the world to the potentially devastating impact of what has become a pandemic. When the first cases appeared in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, those nations’ political leaders mounted rapid, comprehensive responses, implementing contact tracing and testing programs, facilitating early isolation and quarantine. New cases continue to appear in each of these countries, but their efforts have resulted in substantially flatter epidemic curves.
In contrast to the quick action by these governments, President Trump repeatedly said early on that the problem was “under control” and that the number of cases, few at the time, would soon drop to zero.
It wasn’t only President Trump who questioned the science, of course. The voices who are skilled at promoting scientific uncertainty and denialism — Fox News commentators and right-wing radio voices like Rush Limbaugh for example — downplayed the threat posed by the virus, accusing Trump’s political opponents of using it to hurt the president. The DeSmog blog has a long list of statements questioning the seriousness of the threat posed by Covid-19, made by experts at the corporate-funded think tanks and web organizations that for years have questioned the science on the climate crisis and defended the dangerous products and pollutants their sponsors produce. Having been fed a diet of anti-science rhetoric for years, it is not surprising that Republicans are far less likely to follow social distancing, hand washing, and other recommendations.
The slow and ineffectual actions by already impaired federal agencies were no doubt influenced by the lack of urgency from the White House. There was little recognition of the need to rapidly ramp up testing, or that the strategic stockpile was bereft of the necessary respirators and ventilators. As a result, it will be many weeks before the nation will have an adequate testing program or provide the personal protective equipment or ventilators our health care workers desperately need to safely diagnose and care for patients infected by the virus.
In this case, it wasn’t the Republican party’s fealty to its corporate backers that blinded the White House to good science. There is evidence that President Trump initially saw rising case numbers as a poor reflection on his leadership, likely to undermine his re-election prospects. But once he recognized it was no longer possible to wish away the epidemic, the deniers folded quickly and are now helping warn the country of the importance of controlling the virus. But rather than acknowledge that he ever held a different position, he is attempting to rewrite history, denying statements millions heard him make only weeks ago.
Unfortunately, there are other looming global catastrophes like the climate crisis and the spread of antibiotic resistant “superbugs,” threats that are happening over years rather than days. It would be heartening if President Trump and the leadership of the Republican party came to the same epiphany about these challenges, recognizing that only through concerted global actions can we slow and perhaps halt these looming disasters.
There will no doubt be many lessons of this pandemic, but one is that the public health infrastructure, highly resourced, staffed with the top scientists, and empowered to take action to reduce public health risks, is no less important than the Department of Defense in protecting the nation. A second lesson is that without a leader who recognizes the importance of science and values the advice of scientists, the health of the nation will be imperiled.
David Michaels is an epidemiologist and Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health. He served as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health from 2009 to 2017 and Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environment, Safety and Health from 1998 to 2001. He is the author of "The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception" (Oxford University Press), and he can be found on Twitter (@drdavidmichaels).