The Pandemic and the Limits of Science

So perhaps one clear lesson of our pandemic is that, when allowed, science works. Not flawlessly, and not always at a pace suited to a global emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was slow to recognize the coronavirus as an airborne threat. Even now, medicine has a better grasp of how to prevent coronavirus infection — masks, social distancing, vaccination — than how to treat it. But even this is edifying. The public has been able to watch science at its messy, iterative, imperfect best, with researchers scrambling to draw conclusions in real time from growing heaps of data. Never has science been so evidently a process, more muscle than bone.

And yet still the virus spread. Travel restrictions, school closures, stay-at-home orders. Illness and isolation, anxiety and depression. Loss after loss after loss: of dear friends and family members, of employment, of the simple company of others. Last week, the C.D.C. concluded that 2020 was the deadliest year in American history. For some, this past year seemed to last a century; for far too many people, this past year was their last.

So let another lesson of our pandemic be this: Science alone is not enough. It needs a champion, a pulpit, a spotlight, an audience. For months, the sound and obvious advice — wear a mask, avoid gatherings — was downplayed by government officials. Never mind the social fabric; discarding one’s mask was cast as an act of defiance and personal independence.

Read today, Soper’s essay stands out at first for its quaint medical advice. He urged his readers, sensibly, to “avoid needless crowding,” but also to “avoid tight clothes, tight shoes” and to chew one’s food thoroughly. He added, “It is not desirable to make the general wearing of masks compulsory.”

Most striking, though, are the main lessons he drew from his pandemic, which are all too applicable to ours. One, respiratory diseases are highly contagious, and even the common ones demand attention. Two, the burden of preventing their spread falls heavily on the individual. These create, three, the overarching challenge: “Public indifference,” Soper wrote. “People do not appreciate the risks they run.”

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