Fortunately my circle of friends includes conflicting opinions on just about everything. On Covid they run the gamut from very cautious to “the hell with it, lets party.”
My friends do not represent the universe, but as I read from a variety of news sources they are not too far off. And that worries me. What happens when public health gets individualized to the point that it is simply private health? And if that is where we are, how did we get here?
We got here when the well-intentioned were portrayed as the well-informed. It happened over and over; some cluster of data or opinion was used to project not just where we were, but where we were going. Covid 19 had a really good curveball and people with credentials and leadership jobs were infrequently good curveball hitters. Lines moved and the microphones are insistent. Interviewers do not like caution and public health officials fell to the persistence—“tell me, when will infections go down?”
And then we had the preening politicians. The spotlight is magnetic and when Covid took center stage, so did many political figures who knew little more than what they were told by people who too often didn’t know what they didn’t know. Often what was claimed was shaped by paternalistic or libertarian philosophies in public health costumes.
Recovering from this mess will not be easy. We can differ on taxation or foreign trade or whatever policy and the cost of such disagreement will be small compared to the reward of fully debating issues in a democracy. But when it comes to public health, in the face of lurking death, the frame of difference needs to be narrowed so that a high degree of collective agreement can be achieved. And in our individualistic culture where everybody who wants a microphone can find one that is hard. Often, points of view are dressed up as science and before long the word science loses its authoritative bearing.
At Covid’s apex Presidents have been revealed to be slow ball hitters. Former President Trump found Covid a foe attacking his persona on more controllable issues. But, the spotlight was magnetic and at times his opinions were formed by his wishes.
President Biden, intent on being perceived as a historic leader, decided to make claims that as it turned out went well beyond what even his healthcare professionals would back. He was going to be the President who defeated Covid; Covid is winning.
Both Presidents did leverage what America does best: invent, manufacture pharmaceuticals and distribute.
We are now in the third Covid year and to say fatigue is rampant is an understatement. The result: the Center for Disease Control guidance is frequently not followed. Governors and Mayors often look lame. And school officials and the teacher’s union devalue the very thing they are hired to do.
I am inclined, having been given a few minutes of your precious time, to hold forth on what I would do. But let me retreat from prescription to the practical.
Protect the vulnerable from death; full stop. We know who they are, protect them but assess actions at the margin. Shutting down schools because a child might bring Covid home and infect a grandparent does not make sense and especially with the Omicron variant.
And unless there is a sharp ascent in lethality, public health officials need to pull back, continue to point out what has been stated over and over and let people find a comfortable zone of normality.
We also need to work with savvy and humility on the next health crisis plan. There will be one and given the difficulty of assumptions, scalable options must be part of the plan. Health care professionals and facilities continue to be over-burdened; the next time we need relief facilities and trained support staff in reserve.
When it comes to education (generational health), the only acceptable position at this point is striving for normalcy while incentivizing recovery. Those who lead in education and youth missions, such as the YMCA, should be developing programs for the summer of 2022 to help repair what has been broken.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.