By: Mark Glennon*
The sad numbers speak for themselves but the full story goes beyond that tragedy. This is about a policy debate poisoned by noxious, politicized hyperbole that has twisted science and discredited much of science and media.
As WBEZ reported Friday, COVID-19 is killing more Illinois nursing home residents than ever – 605 deaths in one week, taking the total to 7,559. Two-thirds of Illinois victims over the past week were in nursing homes, up from what had been running around 50% and was just 35% in April. More ominously, the number of infections in nursing homes soared to a new record, even though that number has been dropping in Illinois as a whole since mid-November.
Since the early days of the pandemic, we wrote here that carpet-bombing the entire state with lockdown orders would not just devastate the economy but would misdirect resources and attention away from the only groups at real risk of death – the elderly and those with certain co-morbidities. Those in nursing homes, we wrote, were dying at a particularly high rate. Protect them with special intensity, we said. Younger people with no preconditions face no material risk.
That was hardly an insightful position. The data, we thought, clearly supported others saying the same thing at the time.
But what was the reaction to our opinion and those who shared it?
We weren’t just wrong but evil, said many.
To Crain’s political reporter Greg Hinz, Wirepoints wanted to “violate all that this country should stand for,” he wrote under a headline about “throwing grandma under the bus.” Our intention, he wrote, was to “let grandma suffer in quarantine so we can get back to making lots of money.” Wirepoints was “drowning in its own ideology,” he wrote, which was some sick form of social Darwinism: “There’s an expression for that: survival of the fittest, Hinz wrote. “Or, a little more crudely, dog eat dog.”
The same story played out nationally with names more important than Wirepoints and Hinz. The expert opinion with which we had earlier agreed was put in a written statement calling for “targeted protection” for the only people truly at risk – the elderly and those with comorbidities. Authored by leading scientists from Stanford, Harvard and Oxford, the Great Barrington Declaration has been signed by thousands of experts and healthcare professionals.
The Declaration is subject to an ongoing, reasonable scientific debate, but its critics often don’t limit themselves to scientific argument, clouding the debate with hysterical insults.
Like Hinz, Declaration critics often ascribe evil to those who disagree with them. “I’ve had emails calling me evil,” says Oxford’s Dr. Sunetra Gupta, one of the epidemiologists who authored the document, who said she was “flabbergasted” by the “vicious” response.
One scientist who also used the “throw under the bus” line called the targeted protection “the epitome of arrogance.” The Declaration is “herding people to the slaughter,” says another headline, calling it a “dangerous fringe theory.”
The media, for the most part, has spread those viewpoints or ignored competing opinions entirely. We’ve never seen a single mention in any Illinois media of the Barrington Declaration.
With nursing home deaths and cases now spiking, I suppose we could reasonably ask, “Who really threw those victims under the bus?” It was nursing homes, in particular, that we said in April should be targeted for special protection.
But that’s not our real point.
Nobody should claim to have certainty until this is over and the final analyses are in. The virus has taken twists and turns that nobody expected, and experts have repeatedly been wrong even on matters they claimed were certain, though they never offer contrition. We could turn out to be wrong, too.
Our point, instead, is about the need to return to honestly scientific debate. The marketplace of ideas is as important to science as it is to everything else. Truth evolves from the contest of facts and analysis.
That’s what’s been thrown under the bus – honest, rational debate and reporting — and that’s our real point.
The contest of facts and idea is today routinely squelched by shrill rhetoric and absurd claims of vile motives, propagated by corporate media and rigged for distribution on tech platforms run by authoritarian oligarchs. It’s happening most everywhere on everything, and COVID dogma is just an example.
Over the course of the pandemic, we and others have documented examples of junk data from both the state and federal government and policies we thought were illogical on their face. When we get any of that wrong we hope to hear about it from somebody.
But we hope more than that that nobody ever says that we were part of the herd mentality now suffocating the free exchange of ideas.
Finally, and most importantly, most nursing home residents probably will be vaccinated within a month or so. Can’t we, at long last, do whatever is needed to protect them until then?
*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints.
Click here for links to our earlier original articles on COVID-19.