Scientific American June 2020 pp9 FORUM Commentary on Science in the News from the Experts “Failure to Lead” “ A U.S. President who belittles science during a pandemic is a danger to us all” By Ben Santer-is an atmospheric scientist and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Science
Ben was recently recovering from a serious flu infection and had time to reflect on U.S. leadership during the pandemic. He cites three key lessons.
1) “Scientific ignorance can be fatal-particularly if it starts with the U.S. president and trickles down from there”. Ben notes that POTUS dismissed COVID-19 as no worse that the seasonal flu and incorrectly advised the public to “engage in business as usual”. POTUS also promoted the use of unproven therapies and didn’t push promptly for recommended measures such as social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19
2) According to Ben, and as we know many others, “A leader tells hard truths in times of crisis…and does not assume the mantle of expertise in areas where he or she has none”. “A leader accepts responsibility for personal and organizational failures”
3) “’America first’ is a singularly poor survival strategy in the middle of a global pandemic”. COVID-19 and other airborne viruses are indiscriminate and rapidly cross borders as humans travel by all modes. America had plenty of forewarning but didn’t engage effectively to leverage what was already understood about COVID-19 and prior coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-1 and MERS. We were also unprepared to protect our healthcare and frontline emergency workers and other staff by having abundant Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Lastly, the president’s staff and taskforce members knew better, about many of the POTUS' statements and directives, but they were too often silent or weak in their disagreements.
As Ben, an atmospheric scientist, notes the POTUS' belittling of climate change but believes “Trump is suddenly discovering that science is imperative for human survival…”. Only through science will a COVID-19 vaccine be developed. “If we invest in…global health systems-we will be better prepared for the next novel virus…”.