The Deadly Consequences of Sidelining Science and Government During a Pandemic

September 3, 2020 | 2:03 pm
Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock
Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

In the US to date, more than 185,000 people have died due to COVID-19—many times in pain, unable to breathe, and separated from their families. Many of these deaths, which disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities, could have been prevented if governments had made different public policy choices. And yet at every stage of the pandemic, some federal and state governments have chosen to sideline science and policy choices based on science.

This is not how governments normally work. Governments in a democratic society are the institutions that take on the toughest problems, the biggest challenges, the threats no other institution can or will tackle. Science can and should be a trusted partner to governments and help underpin their public policy decisions to protect people’s health and safety, like for instance forecasting a hurricane with extraordinary accuracy and reducing toxic pollution. Democracy is about the renewal and reinvigoration of government by and for the people.

But when science and good governance is sidelined, bad things can happen. When scientists are censored, reports are buried, and data collection is undermined, governments will fail to protect the health and safety of the public.

I recently wrote that by our count the federal government has surpassed 150 attacks on science in the last three-and-a-half years, far exceeding any previous period. This terrible trend has continued during the COVID-19 era and has sadly been emulated by several US states across the country.

Our system of government is based on using science as a guiding light. However, this is being challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Furthering the spread of the novel coronavirus

As a public health researcher, one of the things that makes my jaw drop is when I see actions that science tells us will allow, even promote, the spread of deadly disease across the US. That goes against not only what scientists like me are taught, but against what we all should be able to count on. The law demands that public policy decisions be based on the best available science.

Take these two examples from January and February. First, federal workers were sent into COVID-19 hot zones of Wuhan, China without proper training or safety gear. The well-respected scientist who brought forward this information was then threatened with being fired if she did not agree to a sudden and improper job reassignment. Second, when evacuating American passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, the warnings of CDC scientists—who accurately stated that you should not seat infected people in the same airplane as non-infected people—were ignored.

These early attempts to sideline science may have directly contributed to the seeding of the novel coronavirus in communities across the US, and it signaled to federal scientists that infectious disease science would likely be taking a backseat to political considerations. This only escalated later on, with local, state, and federal governments acceding to demands to end lockdowns in May, failing to provide enough personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, and pushing schools to have in-person classes in the fall (or in the case of Indigenous schools, outright ordering them to be in-person).

Data manipulated for political purposes

We’ve written before on the dangerous effects of COVID-19 disinformation and how it can spread more quickly than the virus itself. But perhaps one of the most dangerous forms of this has been the manipulation of data by some state and federal agencies. When our access to robust data is purposely limited, how are we supposed to make good decisions to better protect ourselves and our loved ones from this terrible disease?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has allowed non-healthcare industries to not publicly report when a worker gets sick with COVID-19 while on the job. Additionally the CDC has stopped obtaining COVID-19 hospitalization data. Instead this data collection has shifted to a far less qualified office that experts have heavily criticized for generating less accurate and less updated data. But part of the duties of the CDC is to collect, analyze, and disseminate the best information in times of epidemics, a task they have immense expertise in. By sidelining data collection they have taken a big step away from that mission.

Some state governments have actively misrepresented, restricted, and in some cases misreported their COVID-19 data. For instance, Arizona ordered university scientists to “pause” publishing their COVID-19 models; Georgia posted a graph with the dates out of order to show a false decline in cases; and Florida fired a top data scientist because she refused to manipulate the COVID-19 data to the support the state’s reopening. Other states have refused to count COVID-19 cases occurring among certain populations, like nursing homes in Illinois and prisons in California; restricted the public from accessing information, like meat packing worker cases in Iowa; and ignored data in order to reopen quicker, like in Washington, DC.

Scientists are under attack

Probably the most frequent way that the federal government has attacked COVID-19 science is by suppressing scientists from carrying out, publishing, or communicating COVID-19 research.

Since late February, some federal scientists and officials haven’t been able to speak freely about COVID-19 – all public messaging on the pandemic has required approval from the Coronavirus Task Force. In April, the National Institutes of Health, one of the world’s foremost medical research centers, bowed to political pressure by abruptly defunding a research program on how coronaviruses from animals like bats can spillover into humans. In June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries censored its staff from even writing the words “COVID-19” and “pandemic” without leadership approval in all public-facing documents.

CDC scientists and their work have been actively sidelined numerous times, resulting in everything from ineffective airport screening methods to the prevention of CDC officials from testifying in front of Congress on the issue of school reopenings. From May to July, three different CDC reports on COVID-19 were edited or blocked entirely for political reasons, including reports on how to reopen safely for numerous institutions, houses of worship, and schools.

When science is sidelined, we all lose

During this era of COVID-19, there has never been a more important time for governments do do what we need them to do by taking science-based actions to stem the tide of the pandemic. That’s what our government scientists and policy professionals come to work every day to do. They have the knowledge and the tools to save lives, inform the public, and help keep us safe. When they are sidelined we all lose.

But never forget that you have the power to do something about this. You can sign this letter protesting the decision to wrench COVID-19 hospitalization data away from the CDC, a situation that now threatens to rob hospitals of funds from the CARES Act and from Medicare and Medicaid.

Act now. There has never been a more important time to push back on the erosion of science-based decision-making in government.