Dr. Anthony Fauci is stepping down from his position as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases after 38 years in that role and 50 years of government service overall. During that tenure he advised seven presidents going all the way back to Ronald Reagan. The peak of his prominence doubtless came during the COVID pandemic when he stood on the podium beside President Trump in front of TV cameras for repeated briefings to the American public.
He was admired by those who believed he was protecting the populace and saving, perhaps, millions of lives. He was criticized by others, myself included, for issuing contradictory instructions and excessive caution. Hindsight is, as always, 20-20 and dealing with COVID was a learning process during which some early assumptions were, understandably, later proved incorrect. It’s unfair to make Fauci a scapegoat for that. All things considered; you might say he was doing his job as he saw it.
And therein lies an essential point. “As he saw it,” his job had its limitations which Fauci acknowledged to Trump when he publicly told him, “I just do medical advice. I don’t think about things like the economy and the secondary impacts. I’m just an infectious disease doctor. Your job as president is to take everything else into consideration.” In other words, he was an advisor with a limited scope, not a decision maker. Throughout the pandemic, public policy decisions were made by the president, congress, bureaucrats, governors, state legislators, mayors, and city councils.
In retrospect, some of those decisions were better than others. Like the states that relaxed the lockdown sooner than others and reopened for business. Some of the worst decisions were made in New York City where government mandates resulted in increased deaths of the elderly in nursing homes, followed by a cover up of the scandal. Many cities buckled under to the teacher unions and kept public schools closed too long.
As I wrote in a 2020 column in this space, “Public health officials are, understandably, narrowly focused on their specialty. Politicians tend to be overly risk-averse lest they be blamed for insufficient action or a lack of compassion and be punished for that in the next election.” So, they err on the side of excessive caution, failing to consider the tradeoffs. And those tradeoffs proved to be mammoth indeed.
The economic cost was of a magnitude not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Countless businesses failed, especially restaurants, never to be reopened with owners losing their life savings. Millions of workers lost their jobs. School children were set back years in their education, some to never recover. Mental health problems climbed along with suicide rates. Federal government spending — much of it wasteful and unnecessary — along with deficits and the national debt soared to record levels leading to today’s worst inflation in 40 years. This was misguided Keynesian economic policy on steroids driving up the money supply to thwart a recession, usually just postponing it, leading to stagflation.
In retrospect, the scale and duration of the national lockdown was a mistake and an overreaction. It ignored lessons learned during the great influenza epidemic of 1918 when quarantines imposed by a few cities were later judged to be failures. Hence, mass quarantines weren’t imposed in the face of disease scares that followed over the next century — until COVID. As it evolved, we learned that those with pre-existing chronic diseases like diabetes were the most endangered, especially the elderly. Younger people and school children were the least. Yet all were treated as equally vulnerable, which wasn’t so.
An oft used cliché of irrationally risk-averse progressives is to justify almost any policy, pleading: “Even if it would save only one life, it’d be worth it!” Well, when it’s about public policy affecting millions, the response to that from responsible public officials should generally be, “No, not necessarily,” or at least, “It depends.” Once again, it’s a matter of tradeoffs.
Motor vehicle accidents account for almost 50,000 deaths a year. It would save at least one life if left turns on two-way streets were outlawed. Just make a bunch of right turns instead. But that’d be silly. Or save many lives by reducing the speed limit to 5 mph on interstate highways. So what if it takes forever to get anywhere and the cost of everything shipped by trucks skyrockets?
A favorite expression of President Obama when encountering a problem was that it be treated as a “teachable moment.” There’s much to be learned from the COVID pandemic. Especially the need to always consider the public policy tradeoffs, in the short run and the long.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.
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