American Elites Still Don’t Understand How COVID-19 Works

Nine months into the pandemic, government leaders can’t comprehend—or refuse to clearly say—what this virus is or how it spreads.

An illustration of a red and blue speech bubbles overlapping to form a coronavirus shape.
Getty / The Atlantic

The United States has been overwhelmed by vectors of misinformation throughout the pandemic. But it’s not just Donald Trump, many Republican state leaders, and several thousand COVID-19 deniers who have waged a war against scientific comprehension. America’s virus illiteracy spans the partisan divide.

In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis chirped about his state’s superior performance and mocked COVID-19 worriers—only for Florida to become the site of one of America’s worst outbreaks several weeks later. Deep-red North Dakota similarly resisted commonsense measures such as mask mandates before it suffered an even worse outbreak.

Even if we narrow our focus to blue territories, however, nonsense abounds—nonsense, granted, that is more likely to result in mass confusion and annoyance than mass infection. In Los Angeles, a new order prohibits two friends from going on a socially distanced walk at the beach. At one point in early December, the city’s playgrounds were closed while its malls were open. In Philadelphia, an ordinance makes it illegal for neighbors to sip beer outside, yet indoor drinking and dining at bars and restaurants is permitted by state law. In New York, bars, restaurants, and gyms have been ordered to close, but not until 10 p.m.—as if the virus keeps to a hard vampiric sleeping schedule. In the ninth month of the coronavirus pandemic, America’s public-health response makes as little sense as ever.

These public orders don’t seem to be operating off a clear-eyed understanding of what this disease actually is. So let’s review: The SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads most efficiently among unmasked adult speakers who spend time together in close, unventilated indoor spaces. The virus can also spread through nonverbal activities. Sneezing and coughing obviously produce virus-encased globs of spit, and even heavy breathing—especially during a run or a set of pull-ups—can spray aerosolized droplets that can linger in the air before slipping inside a person’s nose or mouth. The virus does not seem to spread reliably via surfaces. Put simply, COVID-19 is mostly a talking disease—one that could be brought to heel with universal mask wearing, a national campaign that emphasizes quiet in public spaces, and harsh laws about indoor gatherings.

None of this is breaking news. We’ve known most of it for a while. In the spring, a raft of CDC studies—from a Chinese restaurant, a Korean call center, and an American choir practice—made it clear that talking, laughing, and singing in close quarters for many hours is the perfect storm for a super-spreader event.

The epidemiological evidence was never that complicated, and neither was devising a sensible national strategy to get us through the winter.

- If viral aerosols from talking are the most common vector of COVID-19 transmission … we should encourage universal mask wearing, social distancing among people from different households, and quiet in public spaces.

- If these aerosolized particles spread easily in unventilated indoor spaces … we should shut down and bail out indoor businesses that naturally invite crowding and talking, such as bars.

- If symptomatic individuals don’t just talk but also often cough and sneeze … we should create a national quarantine system to separate them from their families and a contact-tracing system to identify potentially infected individuals and ask them to isolate.

- If a large number of infected people will be asymptomatic … we should invest early in a mass-testing apparatus to quickly identify silent carriers.

- If, no matter how well we respond, this pandemic is going to last for a while … we should encourage people to reclaim normalcy by spending as much time outside as possible, while still stressing the importance of mask usage and social distancing when gathering with those outside of one’s household.

This sort of straightforward, rules-and-reasons approach would treat citizens like they’re intelligent people who care about the motivations of public-health laws. Instead, we’ve gotten a lot of bad rules with equally bad or nonexistent justifications.

Federal health guidance has oscillated between being a vacuum and being an epistemic horror show. In the absence of federal leadership, many major cities are restricting outdoor gatherings, despite their low risk of transmission among young children and ambulating adults, even as they permit indoor activities with a much higher risk. Imagine if the U.S. announced a new war against automobile casualties, and we watched California ban all transmission technology, leading to millions of confused and angry homebound residents, while North Dakota took out all its traffic lights, leading to a redoubled epidemic of car deaths. That’s essentially what we have today—a clueless seesaw between overly restrictive and overly accommodating policies. The laboratories of democracy have become specialists in reactive ad-hocracy, as hospitalizations spike to an all-time high.

To be fair to American leaders, or at least inclusive of non-American incompetence, it’s not just the U.S. where elites have made a mockery of their authority. The World Health Organization took months to declare that the coronavirus was airborne in the first place. Czechs held a “farewell party” for COVID-19 one month before their nation became home to one of the world’s worst outbreaks. The city of Madrid anticipated Los Angeles’s silliness by closing parks while permitting indoor dining. Most bizarrely, perhaps, South Africa banned the sale of open-toed shoes and many short-sleeved shirts.

But incompetence somewhere is not a justification for incompetence everywhere. In the medieval ages, people had no idea how most diseases worked, so they resorted to bloodletting leeches, skin-eating maggots, and an assortment of magical charms to combat illness. They had an excuse. But after 500 years, a couple of scientific revolutions, scores of medical discoveries, and dozens of vaccines—not to mention nine months of 21st-century plague—too many American leaders are still practicing the equivalent of legislative bloodletting, as they oversee scientifically unsound and poorly explained laws that are immiserating the populations they’ve sworn to protect.