The Painful Price of Truth Decay
Any reputable doctor will tell you that the human mouth is the anatomical gateway to overall health. Poor dental care and untreated tooth decay can result in illnesses that kill people.
Truth decay also kills.
Misinformation (false or inaccurate information) and disinformation (information intended to deceive or confuse) about realities like climate change, poverty, and public health destroys whole communities. The price we pay for truth decay is nowhere more evident than in the needless, nearly 300K COVID-19 deaths to date, not to mention in the related economic crisis.
Infectious disease experts have long known that the spread of contagious airborne viruses can be drastically reduced by a few simple measures: wearing a face mask over mouth and nose, washing hands frequently, and minimizing proximity to others, especially indoors. These practices have been advertised for several months, yet millions of Americans believe people don’t need to wear masks: “ If President Trump was only sick for three days, why should I worry?”
ICU Patients have told their nurses they couldn’t be suffering from the COVID-19 killing them because “it’s just a hoax.” They died and probably infected others because lies transmitted over Facebook or Fox News convinced them the disease doesn’t exist and precautions are unnecessary—moreover, that being asked to abide by basic public health precautions is an intolerable attack on their personal freedom.
Thousands who have tuned out or refused to follow the CDC guidelines will eventually be afflicted by the knowledge that their behavior exposed someone they love to a deadly disease that killed them or left them with enduring disability. They will be haunted by excruciating death anniversaries.
As days grow shorter, I am thinking of the thousands of people who will remember the upcoming winter holidays as occasions of losing loved ones whom they were not able to say goodbye to because COVID-19 patients are quarantined and usually die with only a stranger in attendance. As more and more intensive care nurses and doctors themselves succumb to the virus or utter exhaustion, it’s less and less likely that patients will have even a nurse to hold their hand and comfort them as they breathe their last. Patients may lie in a hallway untreated or be turned away from overwhelmed hospitals.
We have now had 1500 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Cortland County and we’ve lately had a few deaths after long months of being spared. We’ve recently been averaging about twenty new cases every day, and those are only the people being tested. Most of us have been careful to follow the CDC guidance, staying home as much as possible and wearing a mask everywhere in public. People who are taking such precautions will be able to take comfort from knowing they have done everything they could to avoid playing any tragic part in the death of a family member or friend. But there’s a limit to what we can do if twenty percent of our residents are actively participating in the spread of the disease.
An October study from the University of Washington predicted that if mask-wearing compliance remained at only 49% (the same % as those who intend to be vaccinated) as measured in September, as many as 1 million people could die before March of 2021, but that if 95% of people wore masks, as many as 700,000 of those deaths could be prevented. At this stage, we have widespread community exposure and the CDC advises us to imagine that anyone we encounter may have COVID-19 since 80% of cases are asymptomatic.
Whose fault is it that these millions of non-mask-wearing people reject the facts about transmission and mortality risks of COVID-19? Do they themselves bear the responsibility for not seeking out and heeding bona fide scientists like Dr. Tony Fauci? Is it the fault of right-wing media figures who broadcast outright lies? Is it the fault of social media platforms that have not censored false statements?
Should we blame unqualified White House advisor Scott Atlas who was given a national platform to force feed Americans a debunked theory of herd immunity? Is it the fault of the president who hired him and downplayed COVID dangers, who has held dozens of super spreader events, and consistently mocked anyone who wore a mask? Is it the fault of other elected and appointed officials who don’t speak truthfully?
These people have all contributed to truth decay and everyone is paying a heavy price for their irresponsible actions. When it comes to irresponsible actions during a pandemic, a cliché applies—the one about those who ignore the lessons of history being doomed to repeat them.
Public health experts in 1918 did not yet have the ability to diagnose viral diseases like the influenza strain that began in the central plains of the U.S. and spread to Europe when American soldiers from Kansas were sent there to fight in WWI. In just fifteen months, that pandemic killed 3-5% of the world’s population. Much of the death was a result of the press and the public being knowingly lied to and told by officials that this deadly disease was no more dangerous than the common upper respiratory flu that usually circulated over the winter (www.ecohealthalliance.org).
We now know how to identify viruses and how to control their spread, so it’s inexcusable that the president and others like Governor DeSantis of Florida have suppressed the truth even more forcefully than officials did in 1918. Their propaganda has flourished due to the willful ignorance among a significant segment of the population. This global health crisis may eclipse the damage of the one a hundred years ago. Will we have to endure an even greater level of national grief than what Americans went through then?
The price we are paying for truth decay goes well beyond the deaths and devastation wrought by this pandemic, however. We’ve seen an intensifying partisan political and cultural divide that amounts to a de facto civil war. Some MAGA adherents believe everything that Trump and those amplifying his conspiracy theories are pitching. They even believe liberals are running a global, cannibalistic child sex-trafficking operation. Many of them believe that the most secure election in the history of our nation was plagued by massive voter fraud that “stole” Trump’s re-election, and they are willing to take their AR-15s into the streets or even inside state capitols to prove it.
Many of the 74 million citizens who voted for Trump acknowledge yet seem unconcerned that he is a pathological liar. Perhaps most disturbingly, the flood of misinformation pumped out by the Trump administration has led far too many people to feel that they cannot trust anything they are told by a government official. They will stubbornly deny hazardous realities staring them in the face, endangering not just themselves but others in their communities and beyond.
Can we agree that ignorance is not bliss, that a little knowledge can be dangerous, and that well-informed people are far more likely to live longer and get more out of life? And that conversely, the undereducated and misinformed are more likely to make mistakes, miss out on opportunities, and harm others or themselves? When a large percentage of the population does not have faith in the facts related to public health, a natural disaster, or results of an election, we are going to find it very difficult to function as a civil society, much less make progress to improve life for everyone.
As we observe the world with more powerful tools and build on the ever-growing bodies of knowledge, facts do change over time, so we rely on experts to collect and analyze information legitimately. Educated people agree on what is fact and what is not because they are able to tell the difference. Whether or not a person believes in the law of gravity, gravity is a physical fact that no one can defy unless they travel to outer space. Gravity was an indisputable fact before Isaac Newton described it and made its mathematical parameters known.
Being able to recognize what is fact and what is not is the basis of all knowledge and prerequisite to thinking logically. There is no such thing as “alternative facts.” As the late, great New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously pointed out, a person is entitled to their own opinion but not to their own facts. We disregard science and other bodies of knowledge at our peril, as borne out by what has happened this year to millions of Americans already devasted by a pandemic that has yet to peak.
Like gravity, COVID-19 is a physical fact that is killing people whether or not they believe it exists. It will not abate until we undertake sweeping disease prevention measures including vaccination. In general, an 80% vaccination rate is desirable to effectively suppress a contagious disease. The irrational resistance to vaccination driven by ongoing anti-vaxx propaganda may mean that COVID-19 will prevail.
Truth absolutely matters as does its systematic decay. The collective price we will ultimately have to pay for unchecked truth decay is too painful to imagine. Our commitment to truth in all walks of public life is the only way to guarantee that we can prevent wholesale atrocities like a pandemic or like the Holocaust, which the world had not imagined possible before the fact, and which fascist groups today violently deny ever happened.
Demanding truth from others and honoring it ourselves should be our universal New Year’s Resolution.