The look on her face will be remembered as one of the defining images of the coronavirus crisis. As Dr Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House response to the pandemic, sat listening to Donald Trump musing about disinfectant as a treatment for Covid-19, her eyes blinked, her mouth tightened, and she appeared to be in pain.
As a cellular immunologist, Birx’s anguish was all too understandable. But she is not only a scientist, she is a diplomat, and since Trump made his contentious remarks last week she has declined to criticize his flight of fancy.
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Other leading scientists have felt less obliged to be circumspect. “Trump’s constant antics are a danger to the American people,” said John Holdren, a Harvard environmental scientist who was Barack Obama’s White House science adviser through both his presidential terms.
Holdren told the Guardian the current approach to science and expertise within the Trump administration is a “shame on many levels. Trump’s talking nonsense risks misleading the public, and it distracts top scientists who spend emotional energy neutralizing the damage he causes when they should be tackling the virus
Three months into the pandemic, with the number of confirmed cases passing 1 million, the tension that has been simmering for months between Trump and the scientific world is at boiling point. His improvisation about injecting disinfectant encapsulated the sense of demoralization – of despair, almost – that many American scientists now feel about the drift from evidence-based leadership.
“They are doing everything they can to undermine science at a time when it is critically important, as are facts. We have come to an extreme level,” said Gina McCarthy, who led the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) until Trump’s accession in 2017.
Science is so assailed at present that the situation raises a startling question: are we losing the fight for reason in the pandemic? McCarthy, who now heads the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said she frets America may prove incapable of withstanding the anti-science assault unleashed by Trump.
“I have been worried that people wouldn’t notice the attack happening. These things are difficult to explain – they are not soundbites – and our country has for a long time taken for granted the fact that we make science-based decisions. That is simply not true any more.”