The coronavirus credibility gap

Medical experts have also lost the empathy that previously characterized their approach to public health. Many illnesses spread as a result of personal decisions and behavior. The contemporary consensus in the medical community has been to acknowledge—without judgment—that preferences and circumstances of individuals vary. This has been true even when individual decisions affect the health of others. This is why public-health experts advocate pre-exposure prophylaxis antiretrovirals for HIV prevention, needle-exchange programs for drug users, and, in the U.K., e-cigarettes for smoking cessation.

But this wisdom hasn’t been afforded to the Covid-19 pandemic. There is little accommodation for people who avoid masks because of difficulty breathing, claustrophobia or the belief that one’s face shouldn’t be subject to public policing. Some medical ethicists have suggested that if ventilators are in short supply, patients who religiously used masks and adhered to social distancing should receive priority—rationing medical care to punish noncompliance.

Further corroding public trust was health officials’ reversal about wearing masks. In February, they discouraged their use and told the public there was no evidence they were effective. Yet when questioned by Rep. David McKinley (R., W.Va.) on June 23, Anthony Fauci claimed the initial guidance was motivated by concerns about medical supply shortages—not doubts about mask effectiveness. No wonder many Americans don’t trust the calls to wear masks.