Twenty-fifth in an ongoing series, Notes from a Plague-Time
How fortunate America was to have, in its gravest public health crisis in a century, a guide of the skill and stature of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci.
Serving since 1984 as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Fauci led research teams aimed at preventing, diagnosing, and treating age-old infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria, as well as emerging ones such as Ebola, Zika, Sars, and HIV/AIDS. Over his long federal career, Dr. Fauci served as medical advisor to seven U.S. Presidents.
When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020 — the gravest public health crisis since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide — Dr. Fauci was perfectly poised to lead us, like Virgil did Dante through the Inferno, to higher ground.
But while it was America’s good fortune to have Dr. Fauci step up as our guide in such a fearful time, it was Dr. Fauci’s bad fortune to step up — as chief medical advisor to the President — to a “President” (Donald J. Trump) who was a narcissist of the first order and a certified liar (see: The Washington Post’s tabulator). By definition, a narcissist lacks any feeling for the public, and a lying narcissist is even worse in a life-or-death crisis — he is pure havoc. The collision between the Pre-Eminent Public Servant and the Chaos of Ego must have become, for Dr. Fauci, his own Inferno.
Which is why, in inaugurating my series “Notes from a Plague-Time,” I titled my first post “In a Plague-Time, We Need Truth and Experts.” It did not take a genius to foresee both the vital need for truth and expertise in a breaking life-or-death crisis, as well as the coming conflict between the lead players.
As expected for a public health official, Dr. Fauci quickly became the public face of the fight against this new virus — the coronavirus — which, because so little was known about it and because it seemed so lethal, struck fear, even panic, in much of the general public. Endeavoring to adhere to the science while also giving confidence, Dr. Fauci accurately termed the virus “dynamic,” one constantly changing, thus being studied as the pandemic unfolded; indeed, soon we saw viral variants. Until a vaccine was formulated, Dr. Fauci urged the common-sense precautions of masking and sanitizing. For his reality-based professionalism, Dr. Fauci became a saint in many households (including ours).
At the same time, proving political ideology is as pathological as any virus and acting on a long-term anti-science bias, Republicans soon targeted Dr. Fauci himself, vilifying him for allegedly crashing the economy and hurting America’s children with mandated lockdowns of businesses and schools. Accused of “flip-flopping,” Dr. Fauci was simply “following the science” — following a “dynamic” virus wherever it went, which is what a good scientist does. Thus the public face of the COVID fight became a bull’e eye, a ready-made one. Trump, that medical genius, called Dr. Fauci “a disaster.”
Jumping further down the rabbit-hole of absurdity, masks were soon reviled, by GOP politicians and their followers, as an affront to personal liberty(!). Same for the vaccines, once they came online: These miracles of modern medicine, created in record time, were, according to the increasingly rabid Republicans, yet another affront to personal liberty(!). They even turned “Fauci” into a pejorative term: “Don’t Fauci my Florida.” Elon Musk, that corporate disaster, tweeted “Prosecute Fauci.”
Beyond absurd, this inflamed “thinking” is flat-out criminal: How many of the 1.1 million American lives lost to date to COVID-19 — count the zeroes: 1,100, 000 American lives — were needlessly lost, tragically so, sacrificed to political ideology and a lethal know-nothingism? On the other hand, while it is impossible to quantify, it can be justifiably claimed that Dr. Fauci’s guidance saved countless millions more.
Bereft of moral sympathy, Republican pols strutted around practicing medicine without a license. One Republican who does have such a license — Rand Paul of Kentucky is an ophthalmologist — repeatedly lit into Dr. Fauci in Senate hearings with such twisted viciousness that, at one, the usually unflappable Dr. Fauci noted the senator’s allegations “kindled the crazies,” resulting in death threats against him and his family(!). For shame.
And, now, with the U.S. House of Representatives back in GOP control following the November midterms, Republicans threaten to investigate this peerless public servant? More shame.
Trained in virology, Dr. Fauci understands contagion of the viral sort. Presumably, as a public health official, he also understands political contagion: the sort infecting ambitious types in their quest to climb the greasy pole for power. It is a sickening sight, and it must have sickened the good doctor, too. In his final interview with “PBS NewsHour,” Dr. Fauci expressed disappointment that the American public, so divided, could not see the COVID-19 pandemic as a galvanizing event, like World War II, that brought a disparate people together, as one, to fight for their mutual salvation. The good doctor no doubt feels he failed in his galvanizing role. I hope in his forthcoming memoir Dr. Fauci diagnoses our ideological disease and also prescribes treatment.
“No good deed goes unpunished”: The French with this proverb reveal their insight into human nature at its worst. Dr. Fauci took the worst. But, to his everlasting credit, he persevered in advocating for his patient — the American public — and steadfastly adhered to the science. I often wondered as Dr. Fauci hammered yet again at his message, what the constant repetition of his good advice, and the constant disputing of it, was doing to the wielder of the hammer himself, though this Stoic will not likely get lyrical about his pain. In his valedictory rounds before his official retirement in December upon leaving a half-century of public service, Dr. Fauci’s parting advice, to future scientists as well as the public, remained simply: Follow the science.
Meanwhile, Americans, so caught up in advocating for their own personal liberty, might do a rethink and consider, like Dr. Fauci, advocating for the commonweal, for the American public as a whole. Therein, as this viral pandemic recedes, lies our ethical recovery.
I among millions thank Heaven that America had Anthony Stephen Fauci as its guide in this historic pandemic. Just remember how terrified we all were at the outset of this pandemic — was this another bubonic plague? — and how Dr. Fauci’s steadying influence quelled that terror. Thank you, Dr. Fauci, for the totality of your extraordinary public service and for exemplifying that rarest of human specimens — a Mensch.
For other posts in this series, see here.