To my government: in the viral emergency, muzzling doctors erodes trust

Dr. Anthony Fauci

Two recent announcements muzzling doctors have further eroded my faith in the way our national and state governments “manage” the truth.

Congress would like to hear testimony from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the long-tenured director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and one of the clearest and most authoritative truth-tellers during this pandemic. The White House has announced that no member of the Coronavirus task force may testify without permission from the president’s chief of staff. According a “senior administration official”:

. . . task force members had been working nonstop since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak and need to focus on the task at hand, “not on preparing for four-hour hearings several times a week.”

And in Florida, medical examiners were told not to release a list of coronavirus deaths. According to CNN:

The Florida Department of Health asked the Florida Medical Examiners Commission not to release the commission’s comprehensive list of coronavirus deaths, the commission’s chairman told CNN on Thursday.

Dr. Stephen Nelson said that the commission was told by the Florida Department of Health: “Don’t send it out.”

His comments come after the Tampa Bay Times said that the list from the medical examiners had previously been released in real time, but, after the newspaper reported that the tally was 10% higher than the health department’s tally, state officials directed that the list be reviewed and potentially redacted.

Message discipline or muzzled professionals?

Perhaps both of these instances are just garden variety examples of political message discipline. The Trump Administration doesn’t want to lose control of its messages about how it is controlling the virus (although the president’s “messaging” is all over the map). And the government of Florida doesn’t want to confuse people with figures from medical examiners that, for various reasons, may differ somewhat from the official totals.

But I’m struck by the fact that all the muzzled officials here are medical doctors.

These facts are true:

  • There is a bewildering blizzard of new virus information every day, much of it contradictory.
  • There is lots of disagreement about the correct strategy from this point forward.
  • The virus numbers themselves are subject to question, and definitive sources can still disagree.

There are two approaches to this problem.

One is to put faith in our government to control the messages and tell people what to do. In normal circumstances, this is a poor choice. In America, government does not control messages. With the lack of inspirational and science-based leadership we are now living under, it is even worse.

The second is to let doctors and others speak about what they’ve found, and use what sense we have left — and what people we still believe in — to sort it all out. Dr. Fauci is one of those people. I also trust medical examiners (probably from watching too many CSI episodes, but still).

The truth is messy and full of contradictions. That is no reason to muzzle doctors out of blind adherence to “message discipline.”

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