When Bollyky told me that, I thought back to an essay I’d read in The Times by Hitoshi Oshitani, a key adviser to Japan’s government, that had been nagging at me.
The Japanese government, he said, understood that the virus was airborne, and they made sure their citizenry knew it. The message became that “People should avoid the three C’s, which are closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings. The Japanese government shared this advice with the public in early March, and it became omnipresent. The message to avoid the three C’s was on the news, variety shows, social media and posters. ‘Three C’s’ was even declared the buzzword of the year in Japan in 2020.”
What struck me about this, when I first read it, was what it left unsaid. Japan was much quicker to understand airborne transmission than the United States, but we knew it soon enough. We certainly knew it by the time of the Delta surge, when Japan again performed far better than we did. We know it now, and Japan is still performing better than we are. It is what we do with what we know that matters.
Trust is regularly polled in international surveys, and so the researchers had access to those numbers. But I suspect trust is only a cousin of what we’re really trying to measure here. Solidarity is perhaps closer to the social sentiment the pandemic demanded. Poring over this data left me thinking about something my colleague Zeynep Tufekci told me:
If you’re in the 19th century, and you’re just puzzling over yellow fever, and you don’t even have germ theory, and you don’t understand mosquito vectors — it’s hard. It’s really hard. I read those histories, and I want to give them clues. But right now, we have everything in place. And it’s our dysfunction that’s holding us back. It’s the global, political dysfunction; our U.S.-specific dysfunction.
There are lots of policy recommendations that work to curb the coronavirus: Masking, social distancing, vaccinations, testing, quarantining and so on. But for any of them to work, they need to be followed. This has been, certainly, the Biden administration’s insuperable challenge. It can make vaccines available, but they can’t make people take them. They can make masks available, but they can’t make people wear them. The context for the Biden administration’s entire response was a Republican Party divided over the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and aware that the road to 2024 ran through opposition to Biden’s coronavirus policies.
So what if you assume political polarization and media disinformation are here to stay, and you need to work around them, rather than ignoring them?
When you reframe the question, other possibilities reveal themselves. As an example: Only 36 percent of Republicans trust Anthony Fauci. I think the Republican campaign against him has been largely unfair, but that he is particularly polarizing among the people the Biden administration most needs to reach is simply a fact, and one it has chosen to ignore. Perhaps new voices were needed, including high-profile ones chosen for their appeal to those most inclined to doubt Biden and avoid vaccination.
I asked Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, about the absence of messengers with credibility among Republicans, and his response struck me as understandably but depressingly fatalistic. “I think this question of polarization around vaccinations is very, very complicated,” he replied. “I mean, you saw President Trump get booed when he himself advocated people getting booster shots. So this isn’t as simple as ‘Can you put more conservatives out there talking about vaccinations?’”