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Fauci flubs the freedom question

If forced to choose between Dr. Anthony Fauci and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to manage America's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I'd take Fauci 100 times out of 100. Fauci has been studying and responding to epidemics for a half-century, and leading the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since the Reagan era. Jordan, on the other hand, is a fiery right-wing demagogue whose notions of "going viral" mostly involve the social media popularity of his Fox News appearances. Mostly, it's no contest as to which man is more trustworthy.

But Fauci isn't perfect. He messes up sometimes.

That happened last week, when he clashed with Jordan during a meeting of the House Coronavirus Crisis subcommittee. Jordan — in typical tendentious, accusatory terms and tones — asked Fauci when Americans would begin to return to something approaching normal life.

"We had 15 days to slow the spread turn into a year of lost liberty," Jordan said, alluding to the early lockdowns of March 2020. "What metrics, what measures? What has to happen before Americans get more freedoms?"

Fauci didn't directly answer Jordan's question — at least, not right away.

Instead, he disputed the notion that American civil liberties had been curtailed during the pandemic. He accused Jordan of making the inquiry "a personal thing." And the hearing drew widespread attention on Twitter and in the media after Rep. Maxine Waters jumped in to warn Jordan to "shut your mouth."

"We're not talking about liberties," Fauci said. "We're talking about a pandemic that has killed 560,000 Americans. That's what we're talking about."

Lefty pundits immediately declared Fauci the victor in the exchange. "Dr. Fauci was not having Jim Jordan's performative denseness," Vox's Aaron Rupar pronounced. But if the good doctor won Twitter, he frittered away an opportunity to actually communicate with Americans, mostly on the right, who see him as a villain.

Fauci made two big mistakes.

First, his response failed to recognize that Americans of all political persuasions really have sacrificed considerable freedom during the year-plus since the pandemic lockdowns began. While the restrictions have varied from state to state, many of us have been unable to spend time with friends or family, to worship with our faith communities, to travel, or even to conduct business in normal fashion. Like many on the left, I would argue those sacrifices have been worth it, preventing the U.S. death toll of more than a half-million people from rising to even more catastrophic heights. Most people recognize the need for the tradeoff, but it has been a tradeoff. Fauci's comments to Jordan — and his later comment to CNN that "this has nothing to do with liberty" — made him seem oblivious to those hardships, and played into the hands of conservatives who have portrayed him as a bureaucrat indifferent to the reality of most people's lives.

That leads to Fauci's second, broader failure during last week's encounter. His best role during the pandemic has been as the public voice of science and reason. It is barely hyperbole to suggest he has gone on nearly every news show, talk show, YouTube channel, and podcast possible to explain the pandemic and to encourage measures like mask wearing and social distancing. The task has been complicated by America's political and cultural battles, and it would be understandable for him to be immensely frustrated by people like Jordan and other Trumpist conservatives whose hectoring has made the job more difficult and dangerous. But if Fauci has learned anything during his decades on the job, it's that public health debates don't always happen on his terms. Just ask the ACT UP activists who hassled him during the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic. This isn't just a style issue — researchers estimate that as much as 85 percent of the country will need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity from COVID-19. We won't get there with Democratic voters alone.

So Jordan's question to Fauci may have been presented in bad faith, but the underlying query was actually pretty reasonable. Americans want to know what "the end" will look like, and how we'll know when we get there.

And in fact, Fauci did have an answer. "If I have a number, it would have to be my best estimate, and that would be that the number of infections per day are well below 10,000 per day," he told Jordan. "At that point, and up to that point, there would be a gradual pulling back of some of the restrictions you're talking about." The bad news: America is still running around 60,000 new infections a day. There is much work to be done.

By that point in the hearing, though, that answer had been obscured by Fauci's initial defensiveness, and by the tendency of media — social and otherwise — to focus on conflict and to take sides. Fauci doesn't have to like Jim Jordan. But the cause of public health would have been better served if he'd given a straight answer right away.

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