The first COVID-19 diagnosis in the U.S. occurred four years ago, on Jan. 20, 2020. Soon enough, we as a nation faced an existential question: What would happen to life as we knew it?
When the answer became shutdowns, school closings, all kinds of impacts on business, a stock market meltdown, nearly ruinous government spending, limitations on funerals and religious services, required masking, and a race for a vaccine, many wondered whether the cure might be worse than the disease.
Regrettably, it seemed that there was no tolerance for attempts to weigh the costs. Urgency exerted a tyranny over sober deliberation.
This past July, a national civic organization called Braver Angels (of which I am a board member) held a convention at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. The goal was to reduce political polarization and to help Americans remain in contact with each other as citizens. There were some high profile attendees at the event, including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox. One of the biggest names on the program was Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health during the pandemic and someone who had previously led the groundbreaking effort to sequence the human genome.
Collins has been a presence in Washington, D.C., for some time and could even be seen singing the national anthem at a Senators game. He is also known as a public Christian whose beliefs are much debated by various camps of evangelicals.
Perhaps surprisingly, the event yielded an important moment when it comes to thinking through our collective response to COVID-19. This significant moment from the conference passed by with virtually no media attention. Collins agreed to be interviewed by Wilk Wilkinson, a member of the organization’s “red caucus.” (Braver Angels works hard to achieve adequate red and blue representation in its ranks.) When Wilkinson questioned Collins about the many negative impacts of our national response to the pandemic, Collins did something deeply unusual.
He gave a direct and honest answer.
Collins, Anthony Fauci’s boss, explained that everything he and other public health officials did stemmed from a “narrow” perspective, which was how to save lives from a novel and immediate threat. Beginning from that position, Collins admitted that he and his fellow officials in the nation’s public health apparatus had not considered how their policies would affect people far away from Washington, D.C. They hadn’t taken into account the impact on the economy, on jobs, on small businesses and the education of children. I was standing in the back of the room and found the admission breathtaking. Wilkinson heard the explanation from Collins and ruefully commented, “Collateral damage.”
Recently, however, the striking moment went viral on X, several months after the original event. The social and print media response, as one might expect, has consisted largely of “gotcha” indignation laced with outrage. (For example, the editors of The Wall Street Journal opined under the headline, “Francis Collins Has Regrets, But Too Few.”)
Outrage is warranted, but I’m not sure Francis Collins is the correct target. I give him credit for appearing in an unguarded situation and answering questions sincerely. He also deserves respect for not doubling down, as many public figures do, and insisting on the correctness of their actions no matter what. Collins was right to say that tremendous damage was done and that this prospect had not been well-accounted for by policy elites.
Who does deserve significant criticism? A case can be made that the broader political class failed in both the Trump and Biden administrations. It is not particularly surprising that figures such as Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci had a laser focus on whatever interventions (such as masking, shutdowns, distancing and vaccinations) might reduce infections and deaths. These individuals were not trained to foresee the economic and social impact of their recommendations.
But elected officials did have the job of weighing recommendations and making tough calls. Deferring almost entirely to the public health officials was one option, but it was the responsibility of political leaders to do more than simply defer. The course we chose, which was to damage businesses, childhoods, the grieving process, family functions, religious worship and more, while attempting to diminish the impact by printing trillions of dollars, was far from ideal.
We will be reckoning with the human and economic costs for decades. We must learn together, so that we don’t respond to future novel challenges in equally disastrous ways. Collins’ willingness to explain the perspective that produced arguably bad policy is part of how we do things better next time. If we decide to establish, as I think we should, a bipartisan national commission to learn from the COVID-19 experience in order to prepare more effectively for the next pandemic, Francis Collins, despite the criticism he has faced, has shown me in his recent actions why he could be an important contributor to it.
Collins, like Anthony Fauci, has become a polarizing symbol. But he is now attempting in good faith to help develop some much-needed lessons learned. Surely what matters most at this point is less to settle old scores than to develop a stronger, more resilient and, most importantly, wiser political culture.
Where is the place of wisdom in today’s political culture? How much do we truly value it? Do we seek wise leaders, or simply those who have mastered postures appropriate to various political situations?
Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is the provost and dean of the faculty of North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina, and chairman of the board of Braver Angels.