The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Americans should be able to question everything — including covid-19 guidelines

The headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta in April. (Tami Chappell/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Post noted Wednesday that the candidacies of President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden represent a “campaign of contrasts,” with Trump’s efforts “fueled by in-person events, raucous gatherings and defiant crowds flouting health rules,” and Biden’s operation “driven by quiet, small-bore events with everyone masked and spaced apart.”

Indeed, the disparate attitudes of Americans in regard to the coronavirus are no better represented than the divergent approaches of the major-party candidates. But Trump supporters and others who don’t embrace the institutionally approved blueprint to addressing covid-19 suffer the indignity of being ridiculed for their maverick attitudes — despite the fact that it’s not just those on the right who question or ignore the science when convenient or politically expedient.

Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala D. Harris told CNN last week that “she was not confident that health officials would get the ‘last word’ on the effectiveness of a vaccine,” her doubts based on the alleged political motives of the president. “If past is prologue … they’ll be muzzled,” Harris opined. “They’ll be suppressed, they will be sidelined because he’s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days.” Was Harris guilty of recklessly planting doubt in the minds of the American people about the efficacy of a potentially lifesaving vaccine? Arguably so.

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Biden said this summer that as president, he would use his executive powers to require mask-wearing. But by Sunday, Biden had a change of heart, clearly based on something other than any change in the science. “There’s a constitutional issue whether federal government could issue such a mandate,” said Biden. “I don’t think constitutionally they could, so I wouldn’t issue a mandate.”

But whatever the merits of Harris’s or Biden’s arguments, their choice to raise questions or reverse course should be defended. Like all Americans, they have the right to express their opinions and change their minds. And like all Americans, they can be contradicted and criticized for those opinions, too. But since the onset of the virus, the act of even considering any path contrary to the advice espoused by either the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization has been stigmatized and scorned.

And what to do when people in those agencies break rank? Last week, David Nabarro, one of the WHO’s six special envoys on covid-19, “highlighted Sweden’s virus response as a model that other countries should be emulating in the long run,” according to Fortune. When Sweden’s mostly laissez-faire virus-fighting strategy is invoked, a torrent of ridicule typically follows, given the country’s high death rate so far. Nabarro apparently learned that, later saying that his remarks had been misinterpreted.

Scott Atlas is a noted neuroradiologist who recently joined Trump’s pandemic team. A New York Times headline referenced Atlas’s “unorthodox ideas,” apparently because Atlas doesn’t think like everyone else. He has reportedly advocated for the United States to adopt aspects of the “herd immunity” approach taken in Sweden — reports that he has denied — and has also said there’s “certain data that’s very controversial about masks.” Are Americans too fragile to handle that opinion?

Early on, the CDC was the recognized expert on the coronavirus, its edicts revered like tablets from Mount Sinai. But Trump’s adversaries are increasingly casting doubt on the CDC merely by invoking its association with the president and White House, à la Harris’s pooh-poohing of a vaccine.

When the CDC recently revised its guidelines to suggest that not all asymptomatic individuals who have had close contact with covid-positive people should be tested, backlash was swift. CNN claimed, based on information from an unnamed source, that the change came after pressure from the Trump administration; administration officials (who put their names behind their words) cited a concern that false negatives could lead to greater spread. Nonetheless, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) pronounced the new guidelines “political propaganda.” Many others piled on.

The message was clear: Even the CDC could not reasonably advocate anything other than the most draconian approach — masks in all public places, no large gatherings, endless contact tracing, more shutdowns just an edict away, all with no end in sight.

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The United States is facing an unprecedented, multifaceted health and economic challenge. The wisest course forward isn’t clear to anyone, but it’s certain we will never find it if we aren’t even free to weigh competing values and options. Doing our best to understand the science of covid-19 is important, but so is our right — our responsibility, actually — to engage in critical thinking on the choices we face.

In the United States, our freedom of thought and speech even includes questioning science, especially on something as new and evolving as the coronavirus. Belittling those who form divergent opinions is dangerously contrary to another important responsibility endorsed by diverse thinkers ranging from Albert Einstein to George Carlin: Question everything.

Even as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases passes 3 million, President Trump has repeatedly played down covid-19’s toll on the country. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton / Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: Kamala Harris casting doubt on a pre-election vaccine is shameful

Karen Tumulty: What Bob Woodward’s book tells us about Trump

Max Boot: That Trump knew better makes his lies even worse

Greg Sargent: There’s a big hole in Trump’s frantic spin about the Woodward revelations

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s unforgivable sin: His covid-19 lies killed Americans

Megan McArdle: Don’t just look at covid-19 fatality rates. Look at people who survive — but don’t entirely recover.