This quote from the New York Times coverage of Trump’s very own superspreading event leapt out at me:
White House officials conceded on Tuesday that there had been an impression created that Mr. Trump was getting tested every day, and a reliance on testing as if it were a curative measure as opposed to a diagnostic. Yet the president himself was not tested every day, according to two people familiar with the practices…
Beyond the general Trump energy, there’s an important point here that has been bothering me for months. A reliance on testing as if it were a curative measure; there’s been a lot of this around. As far as I can remember, this started off with the Americans’ original fiasco when the Trump CDC refused to use anyone else’s test and failed to come up with one that worked. As well as being a disaster, this helped to set the terms on which everyone would understand the pandemic. Testing was coded as good; anything else as bad. The count of tests therefore became the scoreboard of the culture wars.
In the UK, we had the gross farce of the race to 100,000 tests, Hancock cooking the numbers, and then a follow-up dessert of stupidity, as the media (and the opposition) decided it was an outrage that there were more tests than there were cases. The idea of testing more than once for safety’s sake was apparently too complicated for the elite. Weirdly, the opinion leaders about this key issue were economists rather than doctors or epidemiologists, with the incomprehensibly influential Paul Romer declaring that tests should be available like lattes.
As this played out, the World Health Organization’s advice was actually quite different. The Joint Mission to China’s report didn’t recommend indiscriminate bulk screening, and its author Bruce Aylward pointed out that the Chinese province of Guangdong carried out 320,000 tests and found hardly any cases at all. Its director, though, went on TV and told the world to “test, test, test, test”. The upshot of this was the following, grimly hilarious Time interview as Aylward desperately tried to sweep up after his boss:
What should a country’s first priority after locking down be?
Test, test, test, test, test. Not test, test, test, test, test everyone, but test the suspects, test the suspects, test the suspects. Then, effectively isolate the confirmed cases. The third piece is the quarantine piece.
Test was effectively redefined to mean cure, and we were off to the races and down the rabbit hole. Reading reportage from this spring in China and developed Asia, it strikes me that although we’ve learned a lot scientifically since March, we’ve learned nothing at the political level and we might actually have gone backwards. That said, we can’t ignore the emotional role of testing in the sense I laid out here; in some sense, coming up negative is going to feel like cure and therefore fit into its place in society.