A commercial has been airing on national television for the past three weeks that promotes something I’ve not seen advertised before: science.
Not a product that has wrapped itself in the idea of “science.” Not a service that owes its existence to an exciting, new advancement in “science.” Just “science.”
The advertiser is Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, but the commercial is not overtly self-serving: It promotes “the entire global scientific community … working together to beat this thing.”
“Science will win,” is the tag line, and we have evidence that overwhelmingly supports that conclusion.
Sometimes science wins despite its own halting missteps. Sometimes it wins despite our efforts to diminish it, ignore it or make it political. The settled sciences behind vaccination and climate change come to mind.
But science will defeat COVID-19, no matter how much we help it or hold it back. The only difference is how many people will die in an unnecessarily prolonged war.
Medical professionals from the U.S. surgeon general right on down to the doctors recruited as experts for local TV newscasts have urged us all to take one of the only steps against coronavirus transmission we know to be effective — stay home. That was to be our primary contribution to keeping our ER aisles and overflow tent wards clear of the gasping ill. While many, probably even most, in Kern County have acknowledged the medical community's pleas, and tried to abide by them, too many have not.
The data analysis company Unacast, which has been issuing social distancing grades to California counties since March, has awarded Kern County a succession of C’s, D’s and F’s. Somewhere, John Belushi, two pencils shoved up his nose, is nodding in admiration.
His frat threw a parade Friday in front of Bakersfield City Hall, where 150 people or so, convinced that eight deaths and fewer than 1,000 positives in a county of three-quarters of a million, qualifies as a simple, overblown annoyance, showed up with flags and Trump campaign accessories. Tens of thousands of Kern County residents would undoubtedly agree with the protesters — none of them, I would guess, though, are members of those eight families.
Now a group of Kern County folks has signed a letter proclaiming the governor's isolation restrictions to be unconstitutional, citing violations of the freedoms of religion and peaceable assembly, among others.
Their interpretation of the Constitution in this regard should be filed right alongside that of a local businessman-physician, Dr. Dan Erickson. The doctor no doubt spoke for many in Kern County and elsewhere when he questioned the continued value of the lockdown. His statistical interpretation was disputed, however, as was his recollection of history (the U.S. government has, despite his claim, previously ordered quarantines) — and two national academies of emergency physicians said as much, condemning his “reckless and untested musings.”
If the world takes away a lasting impression of Bakersfield’s contributions in the fight against COVID-19, this will be it, along with the wonderful fiction about Lupe Hernandez, the young local nursing student who supposedly invented hand sanitizer in 1966.
As for the aforementioned local group of constitutional scholars, the Congressional Research Service wrote about quarantines and the U.S. Constitution in 2014, when we had concerns about the Ebola virus. Its conclusion: States have the right to make such emergency decrees under the 10th Amendment. So does the federal government, specifically the U.S. secretary of health and human services, under Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act: Washington may take measures to contain communicable diseases that may have been transmitted from foreign countries into the United States, or between states.
None of this is meant to suggest that we all just return to our bomb shelters and jigsaw puzzles. The time to start pulling back restrictions can’t be too far away; in remote Modoc County in Northern California, which has seen no recorded cases of COVID-19, it’s already here, governor’s blessing or not.
Forget constitutional arguments, though: Logic should be sufficient. The virus appears to be in retreat in our part of California, although we most certainly cannot be sure of that. Death overrules economic calamity every time, to paraphrase folk hero Andrew Cuomo, but at some point we must decide where, when and at what cost we should act.
Lessons about nations and cities that pulled away restrictions too soon are plentiful enough.
In February, Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido acted quickly and contained an early outbreak with a three-week lockdown. But, after the governor lifted restrictions, the island saw a second wave hit even harder. Hokkaido went back and shuttered businesses again.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, widely regarded as a kindred spirit to President Donald Trump, was cavalier about the virus until he contracted it himself and landed in an ICU. Last Monday, chastened, he said the U.K.'s lockdown should only be eased when the government is confident there will be no second peak.
In mid-April, the Pew Research Center asked 5,000 people how they felt about it. Are you more worried, the pollsters asked, about your state government lifting its restrictions on public activities too quickly or not quickly enough? By a 2-to-1 margin, Americans said too rapid a return was the greater concern.
Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard is of the same mind.
“What I don't want to see happen is the masses just to throw the doors open and go back to business, and not have safeguards in place,” he told KGET-TV 17 this week.
But Maggard said local governments, at this point, should be able to competently judge when that time might be, and he is right.
It shouldn’t be restless residents that drive governments to make those calls, however. It must be data, history and the tool that has lifted humankind out of plague upon plague — science.