The remarkable admission of Francis Collins
The first diagnosis of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the United States occurred four years ago, on January 20, 2020. As a nation, we quickly faced an existential question: What would happen to life as we know it?
When lockdowns, school closures, all sorts of business impacts, a stock market crash, nearly devastating government spending, restrictions on funerals and religious services, required masks, and a race to get a vaccine became the answer, many wondered if a cure might be the answer. Worse than illness.
Unfortunately, there appears to be no tolerance for attempts to measure costs. Urgency has tyrannized sober deliberation.
Last July, a national civic organization called Brave Angels (of which I am a board member) held a conference at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. The goal was to reduce political polarization and help Americans stay connected to each other as citizens. There were some notable attendees at the event, including Utah Governor Spencer Cox. One of the biggest names in the program was Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health during the pandemic and the person who previously led pioneering efforts to sequence the human genome.
Collins has been in Washington, D.C. for some time, and can be seen singing the national anthem at a Senators game. He is also known as a general Christian and his beliefs generate much controversy from different camps of evangelicals.
Perhaps surprisingly, the event provided an important moment when it comes to thinking about our collective response to Covid-19. This important moment of the conference passed with almost no media attention. Collins agreed to be interviewed by Wilke 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 asked Collins about the many negative impacts of our national response to the pandemic, Collins did something highly unusual.
He gave a direct and honest answer.
Collins, Anthony Fauci’s boss, explained that everything he and other public health officials did came from a “narrow” perspective, which was how to save lives from a new and immediate threat. Starting from this position, Collins admitted that he and his fellow public health officials did not think about how their policies would affect people far beyond Washington, D.C., and did not take into account the impact on the economy, on jobs, on small businesses and children’s education. I was standing at the back of the room and found the entrance startling. Wilkinson heard Collins’ explanation and commented regretfully, “Collateral damage.”
However, this incredible moment recently went viral on X, several months after the original event. The social and print media response, as one might expect, was largely comprised of outrage and outrage. (For example, the editors of the Wall Street Journal wrote under the headline “Francis Collins Regrets, But Very Little”).
The anger is justified, but I’m not sure Francis Collins is the right target. I give him credit for appearing unguarded and answering questions honestly. He also deserves respect because he did not hesitate, as many public figures do, and insisted on the correctness of his actions no matter what happened. Collins was right when he said that enormous damage had been done and that this possibility was not well appreciated by political elites.
Who deserves the big criticism? It can be said that the broader political class failed in both the Trump and Biden administrations. It is not particularly surprising that figures like Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci have focused heavily on any interventions (such as mask-wearing, lockdown measures, social distancing, and vaccinations) that might reduce infections and deaths. These individuals have not been trained to predict the economic and social impact of their recommendations.
But elected officials had the job of weighing recommendations and making tough decisions. Deferring almost completely to public health officials was an option, but it was the responsibility of political leaders to do more than simply postpone. The path we chose, which was to harm businesses, childhoods, the grieving process, family functioning, religious worship, and more, while trying to minimize the impact by printing trillions of dollars, was far from ideal.
We will be counting the human and economic costs for decades. We must learn together, so that we do not respond to future new challenges in equally disastrous ways. Collins’s willingness to explain the perspective that produced a very bad policy is part of how we can do things better next time. If we decide to create a bipartisan national commission, as I believe we should, 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 book Recent Actions why it could be An important contributor to this.
Collins, like Anthony Fauci, has become a polarizing icon. But he is now trying in good faith to help develop some much-needed lessons learned. Certainly, what is most important at this stage is not to settle old scores, but to develop a stronger, more flexible, and, most importantly, wiser political culture.
Where is the place of wisdom in today’s political culture? How much do we really appreciate it? Are we looking for wise leaders, or simply those who master the appropriate positions for different political situations?
Hunter Baker, MD, PhD. He is provost and provost of North Greenville University College in Tigerville, South Carolina, and chairman of the board of Braver Angels.