As Covid-19 is spreading across the United States, it leaves in its wake a slew of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Racist myths and Trump’s attempts to discredit public health officials are driven by a fundamental disbelief in science and the experts who understand it. The rise of such right-wing thinking has led to a scathing defense of the left-wing science establishment, and even the indiscriminate celebration of experts as the heroes of the pandemic. While correcting disinformation and defending scientists from fascist censorship is crucial, it is also necessary to question and examine the information these experts provide us. Science is not immune to political influence, and scientific experts should not be treated as such.
“Blind faith in science, as if it were entirely neutral and uncontaminated by politics, is naive and dangerous.” AIDS activist Douglas Crimp wrote these words in 1988. In the absence of full information from a slow scientific establishment, activists like Crimp have sought to educate themselves. “We can’t afford to leave anything to the ‘experts’,” Crimp wrote, “we have to become our own experts.”
Since I contracted Covid-19 in March and started a virtual support group for other patients, I have witnessed the limits of expert advice for a new pandemic and the need for patients to become their own experts and advocates. When my own Covid-19 case morphed and dragged on for months, I couldn’t find any expert advice that applied to my situation. In April, a month after the onset of my illness, the World Health Organization still said recoveries from Covid-19 should only take two weeks, a position they have since revoked. Contact with thousands of other patients helped me discover that my symptoms and “long-distance” condition were not unusual, but it took the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until July 24 (more 100 days after many long-distance patients I know fell ill) to publish a report on the long recovery times from Covid-19.
Covid-19 is both a new and rapidly developing virus, but scientific studies take time. Therefore, expert knowledge often lags behind patient experiences and is sometimes incorrect. In June, the WHO came under heavy criticism for suggesting that aerial and asymptomatic transmission of the virus was unlikely, errors some attributed to the agency’s working methods of working “slowly and deliberately” and not communicating. clearly the information, perhaps to the detriment of its recommendations. to the public.
When WHO officials reconsidered their claim that asymptomatic transmission was “very rare,” former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Andy Slavitt tweeted that WHO officials should “stop to express certainty when you don’t have it ”. It is equally important that the media and the public maintain a critical eye when seeking to understand information from WHO officials. Scientists have been criticized in the past for being poor communicators, but as Slavitt points out, “Public health communication is not incidental to public health. It is the central element to fight it. Unfortunately, a knowledge gap still exists between scientists, public health officials and the public they are supposed to serve.
This is especially the case among marginalized populations that have been historically excluded and exploited by the scientific establishment. Reports on the impact of medical bias on Covid-19 treatment indicate that our deeply flawed healthcare system and outdated medical education are contributing to the racial disparities of coronaviruses. Science and medicine do not exist in a vacuum unaffected by the other prejudices and power systems that control society. As we look to doctors for information, it’s important to remember the stigma that can still be at play in many hospitals and treatment centers.
Scientific studies also have a long history of harming and ignoring women, BIPOC, and plus-size and fat people, among other groups. Unsurprisingly, these populations may be less likely to trust experts. Not everyone who questions science and medicine thinks Covid-19 is a hoax. In fact, many heavily affected communities remain skeptical because the scientific establishment has yet to prove to the American public that it can fairly manage epidemics without leaving certain populations behind.
Science is not immune to political pressure either; many scientists rely on government funding and cooperation, an issue activists like Crimp would have been well aware of after seeing the difficulties some experts faced under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. The CDC has recently been criticized for being too easily sidelined and even overtly influenced by President Trump. This spring, Rachel Maddow attributed a “change of tone” in CDC recommendations for meat packing plants during Covid-19 to pressure from the current administration. In April, the National Institutes for Health cut funding for the EcoHealth Alliance after reporting that the group was conducting cooperative research with a Wuhan laboratory that right-wing conspiracy theorists believed was responsible for the initial SARS outbreak. -CoV-2. The NIH decision was seen by many as support for such conspiracy theories. WHO can also navigate between conflicting political forces. The New York Times reports that WHO officials are under pressure from the United States and China and that the agency’s decisions are too heavily influenced by a few conservative voices.
I don’t think the world is flat, or that climate change is a myth, and I know from my days in the hospital that Covid-19 is certainly not a hoax. I also agree that blind faith in science and medicine is inappropriate. Science also accepts this fact to some extent; after all, the most ardent critics of science experts are often other science experts. Unconditional trust in what the scientific community tells us is especially dangerous when it comes from the left, as it hinders important conversations about how these areas are inextricably linked to other power structures that we are more keen on. criticize.
The Trump administration first brought Fauci back to the public eye, but celebrating Fauci sets a dangerous precedent. In the 1980s, when Crimp was fighting for people with AIDS, Fauci ran into activists. AIDS activist Maxine Wolfe remembers Fauci as “very arrogant” and contemptuous of women with AIDS who did not have medical degrees. Noted AIDS activist Larry Kramer also criticized Fauci, calling him a murderer, liar, and “Reagan detainee” in the San Francisco Examiner in 1988, and telling him, “Go back to Washington, you bastard.”
Kramer and Fauci’s relationship eventually improved, as did Fauci’s reputation among many AIDS activists. Fauci was open to discussion and did not seem to harbor the homophobia of some of his peers. The fact that Kramer died as a close friend of Fauci is due to both Fauci’s open-mindedness and Kramer’s early refusal to accept Fauci as an ally.
Kramer’s passionate criticism and questioning should inspire us today, as they have enabled patients and activists to engage with medical and scientific institutions and, ultimately, to make lasting change. Our current pandemic is not the HIV / AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. Covid-19 is more easily transmitted and people from all walks of life are at risk, unlike in the early years of AIDS, when the disease was often referred to as “gay cancer”. However, both Covid-19 and AIDS have a disproportionate impact on communities of color and thrive on institutionalized racism. As we work to develop treatments and vaccines for Covid-19, we must remember that patients and activists can also be experts, and substantive change depends on our ability to maintain the scientific establishment. at a higher level, to consume information critically and cautiously, and to question recommendations as necessary.
- Fiona Lowenstein is a writer, producer, speaker, and founder of the queer feminist wellness collective, Body Politic.