When talking about how serious COVID-19 infection is, an often unspoken question that many have is— if COVID-19 caused such obvious long-term health issues that will result in misery for so many people, if it put so many people out of work, if it was hazardous for our economy, and if no one was truly safe from it— and health officials know— why wouldn’t governments do something? With such dire consequences of letting COVID-19 run rampant, why would they urge us to “return to normal” prematurely before the virus was truly beaten?
It’s less surprising when we look at how states and governments historically fail to deal with pandemics and public health problems in a timely way, most of the time. When we do look at history, there are shocking parallels to the COVID-19 crisis— especially denial that anything serious is happening— that make it less surprising that governments seem almost addicted to “toxic optimism” regarding returning to normal.
The state’s failure to deal with the dangers of smoking
The decades-long delay to curb smoking and ban it from most areas, in spite of widely available information about the link between smoking (or second-hand smoke) and cancer, is an example of a public health threat where the government feared the loss of profits if they addressed it.
The John Snow Project article, “Merchants of Doubt,” is a great historical rundown of how governments did not act for decades on the established link between smoking and cancer. Decades after the link was first discovered, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation led a very successful public relations campaign to cast doubt on the science. Because of taxation revenue from cigarette sales, the British government also balked at issuing any serious warning.
…with the benefit of hindsight and access to official records, we can see governments didn’t take steps to protect people in the face of a proven public health risk, and consistently prioritised economic interests. Even in healthcare settings where people might be more vulnerable to the impact of secondary smoke, smoking was not discouraged until the late 1980s and wasn’t banned in hospitals and other healthcare settings until the late 1990s and early 2000s. Despite extensive scientific evidence of harm, hospitals and healthcare settings allowed people to engage in a physiologically damaging activity because it was socially and politically acceptable. To admit harm in a healthcare setting would have implied harm in other settings, which might have undermined the economic contribution being made by the tobacco industry.“Merchants of Doubt”
The failure to deal with the influenza epidemic
The failure to stop the 1918 influenza epidemic is an example of a pandemic where nothing is done because the government has an overriding priority. In the case of the influenza epidemic, information was suppressed for the sake of the war effort.
The influenza epidemic of 1918— colloquially, the “Spanish Flu” because Spain was the first country to acknowledge it— offers another great example of a severe public health emergency— a disease with very quick spread and very high mortality— that the state would marshall its resources to stop. However, the pandemic coincided with the USA’s involvement middle of World War I, and the passage of the Sedition Act, that criminalized words or action not just opposed to the war, but any speech or action detrimental to the focus on winning.
Government posters and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories…cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.” Against this background, while influenza bled into American life, public health officials, determined to keep morale up, began to lie.
What is notable in this account of the spread of influenza is public health officials emphasizing relentless optimism, minimizing the scope of infection and fatalities and, especially, showing more concern about panic than mass death, even as people quickly died by the tens of thousands.
The result of the gulf between the state’s pronouncement and reality was also a horrific social breakdown in which, surrounded by a fatal disease without measures to deal with it, people preferred to let neighbours starve rather than come to their assistance, even when public health officials acknowledged the illness and begged for volunteers. Only via the influenza “burning through its fuel”— killing nearly all of the world’s most susceptible— did the virus lose its “extraordinary lethality,” becoming what is now the seasonal flu, not through government action.
The failure to deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis
The failure to deal with HIV/AIDS for some time is an example where nothing is done because the groups of people it is associated with are devalued by society.
The emergence of the HIV/AIDS crisis is another example of the failure of the state to deal with a public health emergency. A major reason for disinterest in dealing with the disease was that it was first identified in communities of gay men. Such was the severe discrimination in the early 1980s that LGBTQ people endured that the spokespeople for the Reagan Administration treated the plague as a joke when they weren’t utterly indifferent. The activist struggle by AIDS sufferers, most famously through the organization ACT UP, was a two-pronged struggle to destigmatize queerness as it was to force governments and the FDA to deal with HIV/AIDS.
The success, and the failure, to deal with COVID-19
COVID-19 is unusual, in that the initial response to deal with a health threat of its magnitude was speedy and unprecedented, as if determined not to repeat mistakes in dealing with pandemics of the past. This was successful in many ways. Relatively brief lockdowns, public health orders like mask requirements and social distancing, rapid development and deployment of COVID vaccines, and a spirit of “we’re all in this together”— prevailed long enough to save many lives from COVID-19.
As the pandemic trudges on, however, the response from public health and the state has deteriorated— in a hurry to “return to normal.” And in doing so, they’ve even resorted to hiding data or being misleading about the impact of COVID-19 on populations.
There are a number of suggested reasons that observers have speculated and written about:
Perhaps the largest mistake that continues to be made is a dogged optimism that the end of COVID-19 is “just around the corner,” that COVID-19 is being dealt with effectively, and that it represents less of a threat than ever (and that “only” the vulnerable are affected).
In retrospect, the optimism was always an impossible promise by politicians to put the pandemic on a fixed timeline— that COVID-19 would be defeated in a relatively short period of time. Like the influenza pandemic, this prioritizes telling a good news story and preventing panic (or the torture of uncertainty), over actually dealing with the virus.