Opinion | Healthcare

Science seeks truth, Trump denies it

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The president has attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci and all of science. He said that "people are tired of listening to Fauci and all those idiots." Where "idiots" refers to the scientists who have provided a growing understanding of the nature of COVID-19 in just 8 months since the disease first appeared. He insults all scientists by saying that Joe Biden will "listen to the scientists," as if listening to facts, instead of conspiracy theories, is a bad thing. The president has vilified scientists as if we are the new threat to America. 

In science, truth is paramount. Science is the search for truth, a truth that evolves as we learn. Truth matters and the past four years serve as a painful reminder of how much we have taken truth for granted. 

Denial of science and truth by President Trump has deadly consequences. Trump has repeatedly told over 60 documented lies around COVID-19 that have fueled the pandemic in the U.S. This comes at the cost of 220,000 American lives and counting. We have not yet seen a full year and the winter months are expected to bring an enormous COVID-19 toll

Studies suggest that a national plan for mitigation procedures (masking and distancing) early in the pandemic would have saved tens of thousands of lives, as has been the case in countries like Taiwan. Taiwan aggressively implemented a plan of testing, tracing and masking to successfully control transmission of SARS-CoV-2. In a population of approximately 23 million, there have been 500 cases and seven deaths. The Obama Administration had invested heavily in pandemic preparedness after the Ebola outbreak, developing a plan with many tenets of Taiwan's plan. This "playbook" was abandoned and denied by the Trump administration and Senate Republicans.

The president has claimed that millions of lives might have been lost to SARS-CoV-2 had it not been for his actions. Yet, Trump did not take appropriate actions early in the pandemic when he is reported to have known the dangers posed by the virus. There was no coordinated national plan and inadequate messaging provided more disinformation than life-saving information. His actions paled in comparison to countries that successfully controlled virus spread and deaths. Trump politicized and indeed ridiculed the simple, inexpensive and proven masking and distancing measures that are cornerstones of an effective mitigation strategy. 

Beyond the loss of life, the lack of effective mitigation has been economically crippling in ways that are not yet fully realized. As a result, 8 million Americans have slipped into poverty. More businesses have been lost in the last three months than during all of the Great Recession. Still, President Trump takes no responsibility for his inaction.

In denying and vilifying science, the president and his ardent supporters show their ignorance and disdain for thousands of years of collective knowledge that has made modern life and modern medicine possible - from aspirin to remdesivir. The president encourages willful ignorance and promotes a dangerous sphere of anti-intellectualism. His ardent base empowers Trump and forms the bedrock of divided America he has worked so hard to attain, where racial prejudice and anti-science prevail. 

Science has responded to Trump's attacks. Major scientific publications have editorially spoken to the damage and rejected him. Also, scientists must find ways to relate to non-scientists to explain how science really works and dispel the perceived complexity that alienates many non-scientists. Scientists and educators must work to increase science literacy in the American public such that the public can make informed political decisions on issues from pandemics to climate change. This is not an insurmountable challenge with planning and organization at the local, state and national levels.

A president's responsibility is to defend the constitution and, therefore, the people. But this president's anti-science rhetoric, distortions, and disinformation show that he is either unwilling or unable to defend us against a virus, a micro-enemy. 

We are in peril of losing our way in a fog of lies and disinformation created by an authoritarian president who finds the constitution inconvenient, who overlooks the health and wellbeing of average Americans, who vilifies scientific truth and who has no desire to care for democracy. America leads the world in COVID-19 deaths, where it should have led the way to end COVID-19. We must engage in scientific expertise and demand leadership based on truth and transparency. 

Felicia Goodrum Sterling is a fellow of the American Academy for Microbiology, a professor and a virologist. James Alwine is a virologist and a fellow of the American Academy for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

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