Almost as soon as the first marches to protest the killing of George Floyd began, in Minneapolis on May 26, conservatives and COVID contrarians seized on the rallies as a case study of liberal coronavirus hypocrisy. If the disease spread rapidly through the assembled protesters, they felt, it would show that those who’d spent the spring scolding Americans for resisting lockdowns didn’t care as much about public health as they did about advancing their own set of political values. (Liberals, of course, would put it differently: that the cause was worth the risk.) If there were relatively few new cases, the thinking went, it would demonstrate that the lockdowns themselves were unnecessary.
Three weeks later, we have the first results from the natural experiment: Across the country, from Minneapolis to California and New York City to Albany, the protests produced, at most, very few additional cases of COVID-19. …
… But all the way up through the beginning of the protests, and even after, America’s jury-rigged, Rube Goldberg health-messaging apparatus (epidemiologists, local public-health officials, civic-minded journalists, improvising and coordinating guidance in the total absence of any federal leadership) failed to communicate most of these nuances — suggesting, for instance, that Georgia’s reopening was a “death sentence,” and that its governor, Brian Kemp, had “blood on his hands,” rather than emphasizing relative risks and the precautions that might be taken to avoid them. The Atlantic ran a piece calling the state’s reopening “an experiment in human sacrifice.” Groups of scientists who would weeks later defend the marches on public-health grounds vociferously attacked Wisconsin’s in-person election. Even the same scientist who called reopening the economy “extraordinarily dangerous” in late May “wholeheartedly” defended and embraced the protests in early June.
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