Pandemic Ends; Sun Revolves Around Earth

On Oct. 27, 2020, the White House’s science policy office announced that among the greatest accomplishments of the current administration was “ending the Covid-19 pandemic.” I checked the leading medical journals for corroboration of this wonderful news but could not find any. 

Johns Hopkins Medical School was so out of touch with this amazing accomplishment that it claimed the U.S. had just recorded the highest total new daily Covid-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. It claimed that Americans were still dying in record numbers from the virus and conservative estimates of deaths directly linked to the viral infection exceeded 227,000. This extraordinary disconnect between the news and the numbers reminded me of the misguided efforts of a scientist, Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei, to move his leaders into the 16th century.

Galileo lived during the 16th century in Italy at a time when the Holy See in Rome decided what a scientist could say. Everyone knew that the sun revolved around the Earth.  There were a few skeptics, as is always the case in scientific discussions. As a resident of the 21st century you may find it hard to believe that whether the sun revolved around the Earth or the Earth revolved around the sun was a divisive issue. 

Indeed, it was. Those who argued that the Earth revolved around the sun were deemed subversive.  The science-policy office of the government (also known as the Inquisition) had long ago decided that the Earth was the center of the Universe. Accordingly, skeptics were the unruly troublemakers of their day. Their views and bodies were burned at the stake.  

Galileo was a special kind of scientist, one that would comfortably fit into the 21st-century idea of what a scientist should be. He collected a multitude of observations and let those observations tell him what the truth was, rather than cherry-picking facts that suited his assumptions or prejudices.  After reading a highly controversial treatise by an obscure (and dead) Polish astronomer, he wondered if the accepted view of the universe was correct. 

This dead astronomer, who called himself Copernicus, argued that the motion of the sun, moon, and planets were most simply explained if the sun was in the middle of it all and the Earth was just another planet. Galileo checked Copernicus’ numbers and concluded that the dead man might have come up with something original and informative.  He knew that this had ended badly for other scientists who adopted the sun-centered position, but he had friends and admirers at the highest levels of the government and knew that they welcomed scientific innovations.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) for Galileo a relatively new invention, the telescope, was available in Europe and could be used to study the moon and the planets. Galileo bought a telescope, upgraded it, and pointed it toward the heavens. Every night brought new discoveries. The planets had moons of their own that seemed to revolve around them. Venus had phases like the Earth’s own moon. 

The discoveries were nothing short of monumental, and the only way to explain these observations was to conclude that the Earth was just a planet and all of the planets were revolving around the sun. He wrote up his observations and conclusions and awaited the applause he so richly deserved. Instead, he got a knock on the door by the Inquisition. 

Because he had friends in high places, he was spared the discomfort of a fiery execution. The government concluded that this well-meaning fool had simply not gotten the memo. Galileo did not realize that this scientific issue had already been settled. All these numbers and weird drawings the old fool had put together in this publication he called a “Starry Messenger” contradicted what was established fact and only served to confuse the general public. Galileo was given an opportunity to explain that his words had been misconstrued. He repudiated his discoveries and was rewarded with house arrest, rather than execution.

Today the government has decided against burning unruly scientists at the stake. They may fire them, deny them grant money, sabotage their careers or simply demean them, but as far as can be established, they are not murdering scientists with inconvenient views. Scientists and physicians are highly esteemed by some of the general population, but their views are not accorded enough importance to warrant assassination. They are an elitist minority that we turn to when a virus interferes with our ability to breathe. If we are not ill or dying, we give them little heed. They cannot presume to be leaders: leaders tell us what we want to hear.

Doctors and scientists are frankly annoying. They insist that we are not the center of the universe.  They even have the audacity to conclude that our planetary system is a minor collection of dust at the outskirts of a galaxy with billions of other collections of gas and dust in a universe with billions of other galaxies. Their ridiculous calculations indicate that we only very recently arrived on this grain of dirt and can hardly claim to have achieved an enduring foothold on this orb.

Perhaps we should agree with the White House’s science policy office that somebody, somewhere has ended the Covid-9 pandemic. We were assured from the beginning by our trusted leaders that the whole thing was overblown, a media hoax to get us to watch CNN. The government had to fire those unreliable bean counters who kept adding to the total dead and dying from the virus. Why can’t they fire Johns Hopkins and those international organizations that insist on scaring us?

After all, if only a few million Americans are still at risk of being killed by this virus, is it fair to keep referring to it as a pandemic? As one of those millions at high risk of dying from the virus, I want it referred to as something less intimidating, less horrifying. Let’s just call it the Thing.  Then, when the next plague comes along that runs rampant in our population killing millions of people until we achieve the Holy Grail (as per Senator Rand Paul) of herd immunity, it will simply be referred to as the Next Thing.  

If Galileo were alive, he would find our situation remarkably familiar. We want to believe that this Thing is over and done with, and so we proclaim it to be so. Galileo’s contemporaries wanted to be the center of the Universe, and so they proclaimed it to be true. Nearly four centuries after Galileo, there is general agreement that his numbers were correct and the Inquisition was dangerously stupid. We are not at the center of the universe.

Despite widespread claims to the contrary, we are not at the end of a pandemic. We have not achieved and will not soon achieve herd immunity. Even those who have survived infection with Covid-19 may be re-infected.  Even if a vaccine becomes available “momentarily” as we have been promised by our dear leaders, that vaccine may provide only transient, if any, protection. Ignorance is bliss, but it provides no protection from this Thing or the Next Thing.

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