If you had a nickel for every time you’ve heard the phrase “unprecedented times” this year, you’d probably have a lot of nickels. Well, here’s another thing that’s truly been unprecedented: major scientific journals telling you to not vote for one of the major candidates in an upcoming U.S. Presidential election. For the first times in their long histories, The Lancet and Scientific American have clearly urged people to not re-elect current U.S. President Donald Trump this November 3. Scientific American went one step further by endorsing Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden for President, as Tommy Beer described for Forbes. And now a third prestigious scientific journal, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), has taken a stance with an editorial entitled, “Dying in a Leadership Vacuum.” Take a wild guess from the title as to what they may think of the Trump administration.
Yep, “Dying in a Leadership Vacuum,” may sound like the life and times of a dust ball and how an encounter with a vacuum cleaner really sucks. But in this case, it summarized what the Editors for NEJM wrote about the Trump administration’s continuing response to the current Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. And spoiler alert, it was not positive, unless you count positively scathing as positive. They described the pandemic as a “test of leadership” and “here in the United States, our leaders have failed that test. They have taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy.”
In the immortal words of Tag Team, whoomp! There it is. It’s really the first time since since its founding in 1812 that the esteemed medical journal has taken a clear position on a U.S. presidential election. That was a streak of about 208 years, which is approximately 7592 Scaramuccis, that has now been broken. This is by no means small news in the scientific and medical communities. Some scientists and physicians avoid discussing Presidential politics like a radioactive piece of Shoofly pie covered in sewage sludge. But as many prominent scientists have recently point out, the upcoming election is no longer about “partisanship.” When major scientific journals have to take such a stance, you know the upcoming election is not your typical election.
The editorial went on to state that “the magnitude of this failure is astonishing,” and point out how the U.S. “had ample warning,” but was “incapable of testing effectively and couldn’t provide even the most basic personal protective equipment to health care workers and the general public.” Well, technically someone can tell Trump that the NEJM called his efforts “astonishing.”
The Editors wrote that the number of tests performed per infected person has remained “below such places as Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia, countries that cannot boast the biomedical infrastructure or the manufacturing capacity that we have.” It emphasized how the U.S. “instituted quarantine and isolation measures late and inconsistently, often without any effort to enforce them, after the disease had spread substantially in many communities.” The editorial deemed rules on social distancing in many places as “lackadaisical at best, with loosening of restrictions long before adequate disease control had been achieved.”
The editorial continued by saying that all of this happened despite the U.S. coming “into this crisis with enormous advantages.” The Editorial mentioned all of the existing biomedical and manufacturing capabilities that pre-dated the Trump administration. In fact, the Editors pointed out that the current leaders in the U.S. have squandered these advantages and “have largely chosen to ignore and even denigrate experts.” They said that the “federal government has largely abandoned disease control to the states.”
The Editorial also related how the federal government has “undermined” state governors, “eviscerated” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excluded the National Institutes of Health, and “shamefully politicized” the Food and Drug Administration. Using the word “eviscerated” is rarely a positive thing. For example, if the word “eviscerated” were to come up when describing a date, chances are the date did not go very well.
The Editors complained that “Our current leaders have undercut trust in science and in government, causing damage that will certainly outlast them. Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed ‘opinion leaders’ and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.” But otherwise, no problem, right?
The Editorial summarized the situation by saying, “Anyone else who recklessly squandered lives and money in this way would be suffering legal consequences. Our leaders have largely claimed immunity for their actions.” It described the truth as “neither liberal nor conservative” and our current political leaders as “dangerously incompetent.” The conclusion of the editorial was, “We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.”
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this was not an endorsement for Trump to get re-elected President for another four years. “Dangerously incompetent” is not a great campaign slogan. No one really says, “vote for me because I am dangerously incompetent.”
All of this shouldn’t be too much of surprise since more and more real scientists and public health experts have condemned many of the Trump administration’s actions not only during the pandemic but in the three years prior. For example, back in 2018, a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists described the Trump administration’s record on science policy as “abysmal” and “undermining the role of science in decision-making, expanding the influence of regulated industries, excluding public voices, censoring scientists, overriding and dismissing science advice, and hindering the collection and dissemination of scientific information.” That same year, over 575 members of the National Academy of Sciences signed a letter condemning the Trump Administration’s “denigration of scientific expertise and harassment of scientists.” The Federation of American Scientists has maintained a blog on the Trump administration that hasn’t exactly been peaches and cream. It has criticized many acts of the Trump administration such continuing to try to cut scientific research funding. And if you recall, people even had to “March for Science,” during the early days of the Trump administration, which should be akin to having to March for Reading and Writing, March for Oxygen or March to the Right to Use The Toilet.
So, while these may be “unprecedented times,” a lot of what has happened in 2020 seemed to actually have precedent over the prior three years. It’s not as if everything was love and avocado toast before the pandemic hit. Instead, the pandemic simply exposed the many already existing problems in the U.S. It’s almost as if the Covid-19 coronavirus said, “hey, look at all these dumpster fires that you may not have noticed during the past three years because you’ve been distracted by the other dumpster fires.”