If you’re looking for someone to blame for the infamous “15 days to slow the spread” that turned into more than a year of shuttered schools, closed businesses, and fraying social connections, Anthony Fauci says don’t look at him.
“Show me a school that I shut down and show me a factory that I shut down,” says Fauci, the former White House coronavirus czar and now-retired public health official who became the face of both the Trump and Biden administrations’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a lengthy sit-down with The New York Times. “Never. I never did.”
The interview is framed by the Times as an inside look at Fauci as he “wrestles with the hard lessons of the pandemic—and the decisions that will define his legacy.” But when it comes time to answer the tough questions about who was at fault for America’s botched response to COVID-19, the good doctor is happy to pass the buck. The blame is spread around, not only to the CDC and the other public health apparatuses for which Fauci became a convenient (and willing) personification but also to the politicians who followed public health recommendations without any consideration of the costs involved.
Here’s the most interesting and illuminating part of the exchange:
“I gave a public-health recommendation that echoed the C.D.C.’s recommendation, and people made a decision based on that,” says Fauci. “I’m not an economist. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not an economic organization. The surgeon general is not an economist. So we looked at it from a purely public-health standpoint. It was for other people to make broader assessments—people whose positions include but aren’t exclusively about public health. Those people have to make the decisions about the balance between the potential negative consequences of something versus the benefits of something.”
In a certain way, Fauci is correct about all this. He never called for the closure of specific schools, nor did he stand at the podium in the White House briefing room and announce which businesses could stay open and which must close. Those acute decisions were made by other people—by governors, mostly, but also by local elected officials and school boards. And they were made, in the case of schools specifically, with teachers unions weighing heavily on the scales.
Moreover, Fauci couldn’t have made those decisions. The emergency powers invoked to require masks in public, to close schools, to require proof of vaccination, and so on did not grant the White House’s top coronavirus expert any special authority. Again, it was governors and local officials (along with their dutifully appointed and confirmed public health officials) who made those determinations. It wasn’t Fauci who kept playgrounds in California closed even after bars and restaurants had reopened, it was the California Department of Public Health. It wasn’t Fauci arresting socially distanced beach-goers, either. It was local police enforcing local ordinances.
Fauci is also correct when he diagnoses why these failures happened. “We looked at it from a purely public-health standpoint,” he says in the Times interview. “It was for other people to make broader assessments.” That’s exactly what many elected and appointed officials at all levels of government failed to do during the pandemic. Protecting public health is one important component of an overall pandemic response plan, but other things matter too: the economy, the learning loss from closed schools, the social effects of lockdowns. Too many public officials ignored those other things for too long, and we’re still dealing with the consequences.
But while Fauci is narrowly correct about each of these things, he’s also woefully understating the role that he played in creating the mess. From the start, Fauci pushed for the Trump administration to tell states to lock down. “No bars, no restaurants, no nothing. Only essential services. When you get a place like New York or Washington or California, you have got to ratchet it up,” he told Science magazine in an interview in mid-March 2020.
Fauci also pushed back against evidence that lockdowns were causing unintended (though totally predictable) problems. A group of epidemiologists and other public health experts in October 2020 signed The Great Barrington Declaration, which called for a focus on protecting the vulnerable and letting everyone else resume normal life. Soon after it was published, Fauci denounced the document as “nonsense and very dangerous.”
And though it may not have affected the public policy response to the pandemic, Fauci also deserves blame for his disassembling about the usefulness of masks and the origins of the pandemic. In the early days of COVID, he advised against the wearing of masks in public places, only to later admit that he’d been less than truthful. Later still, he advocated for double-masking, despite a lack of any evidence for the effectiveness of that strategy.
He also obfuscated about the possible “lab leak” origins for COVID and criticized anyone who believed such a thing. “They’re really criticizing science because I represent science. That’s dangerous,” he said in November 2021 after several senators pushed for an investigation of the Wuhan lab near where the first known COVID outbreak occurred. Fast-forward more than a year, and the lab-leak theory has gone from supposed “misinformation” to being endorsed by the FBI and the federal Department of Energy.
For Fauci to now sit back and claim that public officials should have spent more time listening to economists and other advisers that weren’t him is both true—they absolutely should have!—and incredibly frustrating. It’s like having a friend in the back seat of your car who insists that turning left is the quickest way to get to the restaurant, but a half-hour later when you’re lost and running late, he insists that it was really your fault for making the turn because you’re driving the car. He’s right, but you’re still going to be mad at him.
They say that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Unfortunately, America’s COVID-19 failures have many parents—they’re just all absent. It’s easy (and in some ways right) to blame Fauci singularly, but that actually hides a good portion of the policy lessons that ought to be learned from the past few years. Limiting the emergency powers that governors and other elected officials can access, as 30 states have done in a variety of ways, is one good idea. Throwing out (or at least refusing to promote) the bums who made those poor decisions is another. It would be nice if Fauci was singularly responsible—then his exit from public life would mean there was no chance this could happen again. Unfortunately, things are not so simple.
And, of course, we shouldn’t forget the fact that despite everything—the pointless school closures, the livelihood-destroying mandates shuttering bars and restaurants, and the rest—America still suffered nearly 1.1 million “excess deaths” over the past three years, a total that exceeds the 1 million-deaths figure Fauci offered as a “worst-case scenario” in March 2020.
Confronted with that seemingly contradictory set of facts right at the top of his interview with the Times, Fauci replies that “something clearly went wrong.”
He’s right about that, at least.