Opinion

It's almost time for pandemic apologies

If we hope to come out of this with anything left of public trust in expertise and institutions, those who got it wrong must be willing to say so

The safest take on the coronavirus pandemic has always been uncertainty. There is so much about this virus we do not know, and, as a result, so little we can pronounce with justified confidence. The information we have is misleading or incomplete more often than not; models accordingly need frequent revision; and it seems there are exceptions to every plausible rule.

Unfortunately, uncertainty doesn't play well in politics, and long-formed habits of confident statements by officials, experts, and pundits were not broken by the appearance of COVID-19. The result is many things many people have said with at least an affect of strong certainty have been proven wrong. Many more of these things will be proven wrong over the next month or two, as states implement varying plans to re-open their economies.

In these coming weeks, then, it will increasingly become time for apologies. If we hope to come out of this with anything left of public trust in expertise and institutions, those who got it wrong must be willing to say so.

This need isn't isolated to any side of the debate. The case which got me thinking about it is Georgia's early re-opening, which began on April 24 and was met with widespread derision. I don't recall commenting on it, but I know I was skeptical. Here at The Week, my colleague Joel Mathis was more measured than most, observing that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) "does not know the level of danger he's exposing residents to by reopening businesses. Nobody does."

Other responses weren't so circumspect. Stacey Abrams, Kemp's erstwhile Democratic rival, called the move "dangerously incompetent." A Vanity Fair story labeled Kemp the "front-runner for country's dumbest governor." Commentator Ron Fournier told his Twitter followers to "[m]ark this day. Because two and three weeks from now, the Georgia death toll is blood on [Kemp's] hands."

The spike Fournier anticipated doesn't seem to have happened. Georgia's active infections continue to decline. Fournier, to his great credit, made a frank admission of his mistake: "I was wrong (again)," he wrote. "Hope this keeps up and that I'm totally wrong — not just about the timeframe."

If Abrams or the Vanity Fair writer have said something similar, I haven't been able to find it, and such a failure to acknowledge this sort of error isn't unusual. Absent some very compelling data, I think an apology from anyone who promoted a curfew is due: The virus doesn't care what time of day it is, and shortening the commercial day forces more people into stores at once. The CDC's about-face on public mask use was accompanied by an obviously false insistence from the surgeon general that his messaging on masks has been perfectly consistent. Or what about those who touted Sweden as a model of a successful light touch approach? Are they recanting now that Sweden has a far higher per capita death rate than even the United States? Final judgment may yet be premature, but Sweden's not looking like a runaway success.

The apology-refuser-in-chief is President Trump. He repeatedly claimed the virus would "disappear," that it would go away "like a miracle," that April's warm weather would vanquish it, that testing would be easily expanded beyond its availability in other nations. None of that proved true, but it is inconceivable the president would confess he has been wrong time and again.

Chief pandemic adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has been wrong, too. At 85,000 deaths and counting, we are well beyond the 60,000 deaths model he touted, and his January statement that COVID-19 wouldn't affect most Americans clearly didn't pan out. But Fauci has been better than his boss about conceding ignorance and explaining why his forecasts change. "As I have said many times," he said in an April MSNBC appearance, "when the data starts coming in, the data always trumps the model. In other words, you come back, you re-look at the model" and change your prediction accordingly.

Note, however, that Fauci in that interview isn't quite apologizing. He's not saying, "I got it wrong, as I now see;" but rather, "I got new information, so I changed my mind." That's good, but we need outright apologies as well. (Dr. Drew, of all people, has set an example here.) This alone will not undo many Americans' loss of trust in expertise — for some, it will only confirm their belief that the experts were worthless all along. But for others, it would demonstrate a trustworthy commitment to the truth over personal pride and reputation.

Let me get us started. As I've already mentioned, my expectation for how the pandemic would affect crime rates was wrong, as was my assumption, informed by a misleading map, that Trump-supporting areas would be less compliant with social distancing. The COVID-19 outbreak I feared would happen thanks to Liberty University's open-campus policy never did (though that may be significantly due to how few students actually returned to campus).

If I don't have a longer list of pandemic predictions I've gotten wrong — and readers may expand it once this is published — it's only because the sheer deluge of conflicting, evolving information has cautioned me against straying too far from subjects on which I can speak with any real savvy. Still, I'm sure in months to come, I'll find I have some more apologies to make. I only hope I'm not alone in admitting where I've been wrong.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article understated the state of Georgia's COVID-19 death toll. We regret the error and appreciate the irony given the subject of the piece.

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