In times of national emergency, it is imperative that leaders act intelligently and decisively to solve the problems the country faces. Yet the way our current administration is handling the outbreak of COVID-19, or coronavirus, is concerning to say the least. It’s reminiscent of past administrations’ action (or inaction) on other public health crises, with advisors in each case inspiring little confidence.
Over the past few weeks President Trump has exhibited a proclivity to ignore or deny actual scientists and health care professionals. He appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the COVID-19 public health task force, specifically referencing the “Indiana model” as justification for doing so, which is a concerning justification. When Pence was asked about handling a 2015 HIV outbreak in Indiana when he was governor, he confidently indicated that it had been contained and his recollection painted him as a team player with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a steward of public health.
However, the details tell a much messier story. In light of evidence that people who injected drugs might be more susceptible to HIV, Pence had an opportunity to expand a needle-exchange program in southern Indiana, but he delayed. Between 2013 and 2015, the state rolled out a sequence of contradictory laws that temporarily created an exchange program but also carried stricter punishments for people found carrying needles. By 2017 there were over 200 cases of HIV attributed to the outbreak, and Pence’s declaration of a public health emergency did not stop the spread. The major lag time between when warning signs were presented to Pence and when he acted raise uncomfortable questions as to how the vice president might attempt to control coronavirus.
It’s difficult to critique Pence without discussing how his faith impacts his governance. A photo of the vice president praying with the White House Coronavirus Task Force quickly circulated in late February, serving not only as a reminder of Pence’s deeply held evangelical Christian faith, but also raising questions about how he might view the epidemic. Why should he listen to healthcare professionals, for example, if he thinks he can just pray COVID-19 away? Prayer can certainly have its place in private life, but praying before a meeting like this that should be informed by scientific data confuses the source from which Pence seeks guidance: is it from God or National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Anthony Fauci and the other experts?
Pence’s praying on a problem like COVID-19 indicates a lack of faith in science and medicine. And his support for conversion therapy and other anti-LGBTQ policies shows that despite a public health crisis, his faith still comes into play in compromising ways that distract from productive solutions.
And Pence isn’t the only evangelical Christian connected to the White House Coronavirus Task Force. CDC Director Robert Redfield and coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx both have some troubling histories working in HIV research at the federal level, including in regards to how to treat people infected and how to enact effective public health measures. Redfield has a history of extreme and controversial methods handling HIV patients during the Reagan administration, including quarantining them, sharing their sexual history broadly, and testing unlicensed and dangerous drugs. Both administrators were involved at at time when a staggering number of people died (almost 90,000 by one conservative estimate) from HIV. Birx runs the US global AIDS initiative, and both she and Redfield have advocated for abstinence-only sex education around the world—something religious fundamentalists like Pence find to be the best method to avert the spread of HIV despite the data.
While both the response to HIV in the 1980s and the lackluster planning and preparedness for COVID-19 we’re currently witnessing, it’s important to note that coronavirus and the HIV epidemic are vastly different with regard to mortality. Experts do not foresee the same impact from COVID-19, although the impacts are still pretty uncertain.
It is a sad state of affairs when ineffective communication and improper responses continue to emanate from this administration regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. No matter what Pence might think God might do, science can be empirically measured and offers the best way out of this crisis.