The names of 2,977 people are engraved on the bronze parapets of the 9/11 Memorial at 180 Greenwich Street in Manhattan, and the entire footprint of the Twin Towers is now part of a great national place of remembrance. As a New Yorker at the time, I remember making my way down to the site in the first few weeks afterwards to bear witness to what had just happened and to honor the dead, the acrid smell of the gigantic pile of rubble burning in my nose, attaching itself to my clothes.
Over 20 years later, that September day retains a singular importance in recent American history. We not only remember the dead; we have handsomely compensated the surviving families, with President Biden signing a bill at last year’s end sending $2.7 billion to the nearly 6,000 spouses and children of those who died that fall morning.
When we neared the mark of 100,000 deaths from this pandemic, The New York Times devoted the entire front page to the names of the dead. When we hit half a million in 2021, there was a graphic in the center above the fold commemorating the loss. A map across the whole front page marked the threshold of a million American deaths in May 2022, tracing the swath of sorrow cut across the country in a million tiny dots on the page. As a nation, we have spent over $5 trillion on the pandemic, just in congressional spending alone.
Sing a song of forgetting…
Sing of not remembering when
Of memories that go unremembered and then…
—from Next to Normal (Yorkey & Kitt, 2008)
Last week alone, nearly 4,000 people in the United States died of Covid-19. The toll has been at a similar level since last summer: a 9/11’s worth of deaths every week to 10 days. And yet, where we once remembered, all we want to do now is forget. Yes, some advocated for “the urgency of normal” even at the height of the Omicron surge; high-profile figures like David Leonhardt at The New York Times and Leana Wen in The Washington Post endorsed these views—but it was hard to ignore the vast toll of the dead last winter, even if Leonhardt assured us that “Omicron was milder.” But something is different now.
A flurry of pieces in mainstream, prestige media outlets like The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post—followed by some admiring posts on social media from clinicians who should know better—took things a few steps further at the end of 2022. These commentators suggested that those who refuse to forget, move on, and stop paying attention to the pandemic are “holdouts,” “hardliners,” adherents to a “fringe politics”—and, an appellation almost too silly to write, “communists.” The implication is that people who still care—or care too much—are beyond the pale, and also, perhaps, harboring a touch of danger in what they represent.
The writers of these stories all situate themselves as speaking for the vast center. As writers, they are a people without politics, with an avowed and insistent neutrality seemingly conferred on them by their profession, and by the publications they write for, which seek fairness and objectivity—always an excuse for what Joan Didion called “a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking.” But this kind of worldview also tracks with what organizer Aaron Huertas has labeled “reactionary centrism,” an ideology of sorts held by “someone who says they’re politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.” Historian Thomas Zimmer has used this idea to explain what is happening in American politics right now as a “fever dream of reactionary centrism: A center-right re-alignment of American politics, all in the name of defending democracy against Trump—while also upholding the traditional order against the forces of multiracial pluralism.” The current moment in Covid-19 journalism and commentary and in the wider politics of the pandemic fit well within this frame.
Let’s take Emma Green’s “The Case for Wearing Masks Forever” in The New Yorker on December 28. First, a little background: Green has had practice in hippie-punching when it comes to Covid-19; she wrote a piece for The Atlantic in May 2021 called “The Liberals Who Can’t Quit Lockdown.” But her tone has since taken on an anxious, breathless quality. Referring to a small group of clinicians, public health experts, advocates, patients, and others assembled under the banner of the People’s CDC, which she profiles, she writes: “All the talk about empire-building and capital accumulation—a key component of Marxist economic theory—made me wonder whether ‘the people’ in the People’s CDC are those people.”
Green—who quotes me in the article, noting, accurately, that I am not a member of the People’s CDC—reminds me of no one more than Sterling Hayden as Gen. Jack D. Ripper, flapping his arms about about the red menace in Dr. Strangelove: “But today, war is too important to be left to politicians.… I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”
For Green, public health is too important to be left to the experts—especially those conspiring to sap our American way of life. She is going to protect us from all that by targeting funders of the People’s CDC, valiantly trying to enlist other public health experts to take up her cause against the People’s CDC, and debunking her own caricatures of their views and work—but with little actual understanding of the history, science, or practice of public health in America.
Green does not engage with the substance of the People’s CDC’s critique of the American pandemic response—and it seems to shock her that the group “interprets evidence about this stage of the pandemic, and what we should do about it, differently than the CDC and the White House.” But what most unnerves her is that “the organization is part of a much broader ecosystem of left-wing public-health groups that advocate more persistent mitigations.”
Losing the Plot
This is where she really starts to lose the plot. Just in November 2022, a group of close to 400 scientists issued a call for a more robust effort to address the ongoing pandemic in Nature magazine, one of the two premier global science publications—hardly a bastion of Marxist thought. And President Trump’s surgeon general, Jerome Adams, who has advocated a more comprehensive response, including mask mandates on public transportation, also doesn’t fit neatly into Green’s mold. Green also collapses any notions of a better path ahead into a nightmare of “more persistent mitigations”: masking forever, a return to lockdowns, a dystopian vision of any alternative to the status quo.
She also knows little about the history of public health and seems puzzled that “the group takes issue with the way that the CDC emphasizes individual choices over collective action” in the context of the pandemic. If she had bothered to read the work of the dean of the Ohio State University College of Public Health, Amy Fairchild, whom she quotes in her piece, Green would realize that collective action has deep roots in public health, being at the heart of many of its successes. Only at the beginning of the 20th century—as medicine took greater control over the field—did it turn toward treating individuals as a key feature of its work.
Green also repeatedly labels the People’s CDC’s critiques “grievances.” A grievance, as the Cambridge dictionary defines it is “a complaint or a strong feeling that you have been treated unfairly.” This shifts the People’s CDC’s concerns into an emotional register, into the realm of “let me speak to the manager,” rather than granting them any serious scientific credibility.
Let’s take a case in point. One of the People’s CDC’s “grievances” is that the community-level maps rolled out by the CDC in February 2022 are poor metrics for a public health response. Yet a peer-reviewed paper in The Annals of Internal Medicine, by Joshua Salomon from Stanford and Alyssa Bilinksi from Brown, made a similar case in August 2022:
First, our findings suggest that earlier indicators may be needed to prompt preventive actions in time to avert substantial death in future Covid-19 surges. Because mortality lags case diagnosis and hospitalization, there is limited scope for changes in individual behavior and public health strategies to reduce mortality over the 3 weeks after communities reach the high Covid-19 category. Preventive interventions that are initiated at the onset of a new episode of high Covid-19 community level can affect transmission after that point, but many of the infections that will lead to severe disease and death over the weeks immediately after will have occurred already.
As the authors note, community levels sound an alarm too late to intervene effectively, thus baking in many deaths that could have been avoided by preventive action. Perhaps Green didn’t read this paper; certainly, she dismisses concerns about the CDC’s community levels altogether too blithely.
Eventually, we get to Green’s personal bête noire: the mask. She is clearly outraged that the People’s CDC supports mask mandates and has argued that “the vaccine-only strategy promoted by the CDC is insufficient.” The Nature consensus statement I cited above also endorses the idea that vaccine-only strategies are not sufficient responses to the pandemic, and also endorses masks as part of a comprehensive strategy. Whether, where, and when mask mandates make sense is another set of questions that Green never bothers to ask.
The rest of Green’s article trades in manufacturing outrage: “Their messaging has the unmistakable inflection of activist-speak, marked by a willingness to make eye-popping claims about the motivations of politicians, corporations, or anyone in power.” How dare anyone suggest racism, or ableism, has anything to do with the American response to the pandemic? In the history of American public health, Covid-19 is just the latest instance of both these forms of discrimination affecting the health of our fellow citizens. Those notorious reds at the Association of American Medical Colleges even have a reading list for Green on racism and health if she’d like to learn more about how it operates here. And it’s just embarrassing that Green seems to have no idea that eugenics was not only embraced by Nazis and white supremacists but also deeply embedded in American public health and medicine for a long time, lingering well into the present.
Instead, one of Green’s overriding concerns is the alleged incivility of the People’s CDC—their harsh words, their anger. I won’t go into it here, but Green’s tone-policing also serves a political purpose: You can read Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan in The Nation on how “calls to be calm and civil often…have the function of excluding from public discourse precisely those most likely to upset the status quo.” Which is exactly what Green and The New Yorker are doing here.
Green also tries to dispute the specific scientific critiques made by the People’s CDC—on the CDC’s recommendation for a five-day isolation after Covid symptoms, the sufficiency of one-way masking, and the rates of long Covid in the US. But here Green doesn’t assemble the data for her claims; she just says “some studies”and “some experts” think otherwise. Green’s case is based only her own assertions; there is neither analysis nor opposing evidence presented, while there is indeed corroboration from the peer-reviewed literature to support the People’s CDC’s critiques above—including a piece just last October in JAMA Network Open warning that the five-day isolation period recommended by the CDC might be too short. The problems with one-way masking were detailed in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences way back in December 2021. When Green does wheel in an expert—to make the case that rates of long Covid are overestimated—she doesn’t cite an actual researcher who has worked on this topic, instead turning to Leana Wen to make a general statement in support of her thesis. While Wen is indeed a physician—and a columnist for the The Washington Post—she has no specific training in infectious disease nor in the epidemiology of long Covid. But substance is not the point. Green just wants to deprive the People’s CDC of scientific legitimacy, painting them as moralizers twisting science for political ends.
There is not enough room here for a full debunking of this terrible article. But New Yorker editor David Remnick should be ashamed of it, given the other talented science and health writers who have appeared in the pages of the magazine. Why did he assign a reporter covering “culture wars” to a story that requires at least a basic familiarity with the science? Perhaps setting off a culture war was the goal here. Green caricatures the People’s CDC as if they are wild-eyed proponents of Zero Covid policies, when their own mission statement is far more mild-mannered: “The People’s CDC is a coalition of public health practitioners, scientists, healthcare workers, educators, advocates and people from all walks of life working to reduce the harmful impacts of Covid-19.” Green’s tagging the group as Zero Covid zealots shows she is really interested in foreclosing any further action beyond what we’re doing now. Otherwise, she would have done some talking about what we can do together—discussing, for instance, about how we might get more people vaccinated and boosted, extend access to Paxlovid, or introduce national sick pay to make it possible for people to stay home when they are contagious—among other mitigation strategies (e.g., ventilation upgrades in public buildings).
What, Us Worry?
But you also have to wonder: Why target this small group of progressive scientists and activists? I suspect it’s because Green wants to make an example of them. She has no interest in challenging the government’s response to the pandemic; instead, she wants others to see how The New Yorker can marginalize you for speaking up. Of course, a critique aimed at more powerful people might have faced greater scrutiny. Finally, let’s just say it: Green opens her story with Dr. Mindy Fullilove, one of the leading experts on HIV/AIDS in Black America—who was indeed central in the formation of the People’s CDC. One has to wonder why a Black scientist and an interracial coalition on Covid-19 are Green’s go-to-examples of pandemic radicalism—and to what audience demographic this cautionary tale is supposed to appeal.
With Green’s article in The New Yorker, Amy Harmon’s piece on “The Last Holdouts” in The New York Times, and Megan McArdle bemoaning “fringe politics” around public health in her “Welcome 2023, the first year of the post-pandemic era” in The Washington Post all coming together at the end of 2022, it’s clear that our rulers want us to forget, care less, stop worrying, and learn to love the virus. Like the GOP in Congress, which blocked any new programmatic Covid-19 funding in the year-end appropriations bill, they insist we’ve done enough already, so please, stop asking for more—particularly from us! The right and the “sensible” center chorus in unison—just as the XBB1.5 variant arrives to ramp up infections and hospitalizations for another potential surge.
This pandemic will end one day—but not from putting our heads in the sand and wishing it away. We’ve got to do the work. As Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University, said recently:
A question I put to students and now to you: If Covid in the top 5 causes of death is “life back to normal”, how much longer can we expect governments to be happy spending billions preventing heart disease, cancer, food-borne illness, etc? Don’t settle for death. Demand better.
You don’t have to love the tactics of the People’s CDC—or agree with all of their claims and recommendations—but those who “are done with the pandemic,” for whom a “return to normal” is more urgent than stemming the continuing tide of death and suffering, are the real pied pipers in this tale. Ordinary Americans like me or you are certainly tired after these long three years, but if you have even the slightest sense of civic duty, an ounce of feeling for other human beings—as a journalist, an editor, a politician, a scientist, or a clinician—you can’t just tell people what they want to hear. You have to offer up the hard truths and “demand better.”
Will it all work out? Will we succeed in beating back Covid-19 more successfully than we have now, given our sorry track record compared to our G7 peers? Who knows? But not trying—or worse, arguing vociferously to just give up, while going after those still doing the work—is just morally wrong, politically bankrupt, and scientifically unsound.