The coronavirus pandemic has been a disaster in nearly every respect. As I write this, half a million Americans have died from the disease, ten times as many as died from flu and pneumonia in 2019. Many who recover continue to suffer mysterious, lingering symptoms. The harsh restrictions imposed on us have been devastating to workers, small businesses, mental health, and students, particularly children and teens.
The culpability for this disaster is — or should be — owned by the politicians who have the power to mobilize our extensive technocratic state against such a crisis. But time and time again, leaders in America have offloaded their responsibility onto other parties.
The final consequence of our political finger-pointing is that you and I have been made responsible. We say “we’re all in this together,” but what this actually means is that father has turned against son, and daughter against mother.
In January 2020, when the first cases of what would later be dubbed Covid-19 were discovered on American soil, state and city governments were charged with managing the crisis before it was too late. But at precisely the time for acting, when the virus was here but had not yet spread widely, nearly every political institution in America that bore responsibility — including various bureaus of public health — claimed that there wasn’t enough evidence to do anything. And when it was clear that they had waited too long, they denied responsibility and placed the blame elsewhere.
Consider New Orleans, where Mardi Gras festivities began in early February, well after we knew that multiple cities in the United States had become breeding grounds for the virus. When asked why the city government had done nothing to cancel parades or even issue warnings — let alone to pursue more forward-thinking courses of action, such as implement an early city-wide testing program — mayor LaToya Cantrell pointed her finger at the federal government: “We were not given a warning or even told, ‘Look, you know what? Don’t have Mardi Gras.’” Instances of this nonresponse from governors, mayors, and local leaders across the country are too numerous to list.
The strength of American federalism was supposed to be its ability to widely distribute the power to govern. The people closest to a problem are also the people granted the most authority to address it. Every square foot of American soil rests somewhere within a nested hierarchy of political authority, such that a responsible party is always close by. But in the pandemic, this system built for efficiently distributing responsibility instead became a system for efficiently dodging it.
In her 1969 essay “Reflections on Violence,” Hannah Arendt disparaged the programmatic, technocratic, metrics-driven governance that began to flourish in America after World War II. She saw that bureaucracy was a machine that served to expand the state’s power over the lives of its citizens while dissolving its responsibility. Bureaucracy, in Arendt’s telling, is “the rule of an intricate system of bureaus in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called rule by Nobody.”
On February 9, 2020, three days after the first Covid-19 death in the United States — which at the time had gone unrecorded and unreported because of the lack of adequate testing — the New York City Health Commissioner urged citizens via Twitter:
Three weeks later, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams tweeted: “Seriously people: STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus….”
And then there was New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s Tweet on March 2:
Public trust in government and all its various institutions has all but collapsed. The government has made — and has refused to acknowledge — mistake after mistake, all while claiming to “follow the science.”
What “follow the science” has amounted to, ultimately, is a shifting of agency for decision-making onto scientific and bureaucratic bodies like the CDC and the WHO, while obscuring the fact that the decisions to be made remain fundamentally political. Whether schools or restaurants should be forced to close is not simply a question of epidemiology, but of politics, economics, and ethics. In the best case, scientific bodies can inform or suggest policy by supplying data and knowledge that politicians don’t typically possess, but government is in no way beholden to these suggestions. Even when government simply delegates decisions to scientists, the power to make the decisions still resides with elected leaders. The WHO may offer bad policy advice — say, against wearing masks or against imposing travel restrictions as a novel virus begins to spread around the world — but politicians still remain responsible for how they respond to this guidance.
The “science” that politicians have claimed to follow rarely resembles the centuries-old process of making informed guesses, testing hypotheses, assembling data, and asking new questions in an effort to teeter toward the truth. It is rather a void at the center of technocratic politics into which leaders cast their responsibility.
By November, New York governor Andrew Cuomo felt that his state had cause to celebrate. After being one of the hardest hit by the virus in the spring, its infection rates had plummeted during the summer and projections for the fall gave cause for optimism. “How does New York wind up fourth?” he asked, referring to the ranking of states with the lowest portion of Covid tests returning positive. “That’s because New Yorkers have done a phenomenal job,” he answers. “New Yorkers deserve credit because they have done a phenomenal job.”
At first blush, this appears to be a gesture of humility, downplaying his importance as a leader in the fight to stem the pandemic. But if New Yorkers are responsible for the state’s success, one might wonder whether Cuomo also holds them responsible for its failures — and ultimately for the harsh restrictions that are imposed upon them.
Indeed he does: “The restrictions work,” Cuomo goes on to say. “If you were socially distanced, and you wore a mask, and you were smart, none of this would be a problem — it’s all self-imposed. It’s all self-imposed. If you didn’t eat the cheesecake you wouldn’t have a weight problem. It’s all self-imposed.”
We’re all in this together,” the slogan says. It might better read: It’s all on you. We are all together in being burdened by a responsibility that’s fallen to us individually as our leaders have artfully dodged it. Masks, social distancing, testing, vaccination: all of these strategies for which individuals have become responsible could be contributions to a larger strategy, but it’s increasingly clear that they’ve become practically the entire game plan.
America entered the new year in a spirit not of warmth but division: in the words of the Gospel of Luke, “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Families fought over compliance or non-compliance with state guidelines on holiday gatherings, relatives snuck grandparents off to illicit basement worship services, many remained isolated in fear and anxiety.
The technocratic apparatus might have been deployed toward a strategy of creative mitigation — say, mass manufacturing of N95 masks, test kits mailed to every American, testing at a large-enough scale to isolate only the actually infected instead of everyone. Instead, our leaders decided to indefinitely maintain crippling restrictions on individuals, schools, businesses, and social gatherings and take a Hail Mary pass at a vaccine, a gamble that paid off faster than we could have hoped and slower than we could bear.
But let us temper our frustration with one another by remembering that the responsibility was not with us by nature. It was thrown at our feet by those who simply refused to hold it.
The Cop-Out of “Follow the Science”