Dr. Anthony S. Fauci has been Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for over 36 years. Twice over during his atypically long tenure he played a particularly prominent part in a health care crisis.
The first was in the 1980s when, in response to the reasonable raging of legendary gay rights activist Larry Kramer, Fauci was instrumental in getting the government, in collaboration with big pharma, to develop and distribute drugs to combat AIDS. And the second was, of course, during the last year, when as director of NIAID, and as a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Fauci became the nation’s most visible and widely trusted health care expert. For most of 2020, as America’s experience of the pandemic went from bad to far worse, it was Fauci more than anyone else who represented the American medical establishment.
Though initially he was in Donald Trump’s good graces, as spring turned into summer Fauci was effectively exiled from the White House. The president no longer wanted to hear what he had to say. But this week Fauci was brought in from the cold – not by the incumbent president but by the president-elect. Joe Biden asked Fauci to be his chief medical adviser – an offer that Fauci, by his own testimony, accepted “on the spot.”
But is Dr. Fauci the hero that he has been made out to be? Was he the leader that we needed in winter and spring of 2020, when we should have been warned over and over again, if not by Trump then by others in his administration, especially health care professionals, of the dangers that lay ahead if Covid-19 got out of hand? I would argue no. I would argue that Fauci – like other medical bureaucrats, such as Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – was far too passive and far too pliant to play the part of Paul Revere. As an expert in infectious disease Fauci should have known better than to tell us early in the year that there was no reason for us not to travel – and that there was no reason for us to wear a mask. Additionally Fauci should have known better than to stand by silently as the president lied to the nation about the pernicious threat that was Covid-19 – as when he promised the American people the virus would “just disappear.”
Fauci became somewhat more forthright, somewhat more direct as the months dragged on and the pandemic got worse. But by then it was not only too little but too late – Fauci had been too careful, cautious, and conservative for too long. By then many millions of Americans were no longer able or, better, willing to hear his admonitions or recommendations. By playing the part of Trump’s good solder during the early months of the year Fauci failed to be what we needed him to be – a leader in health care, not a follower.
What should Fauci have done instead of what he did? He knew or he thought he did that if he refused to follow where Trump led in the months of, say, February, March, and April, he would have been fired. To which I would reply – so what? Fauci has anyway clung to his position for far too long. No leader should ever remain in a post for as long as he already has. Moreover, given that he was reporting to a leader who was bad, as incompetent as unethical, one could argue, and I do, that it was Fauci’s moral responsibility not only to speak truth to power but to shout truth to power. Fauci though is a gentleman of the old school. He did not have it in him to do what he needed to do – to break rank. Time for fresh blood.