Amid the politics and false narratives, the fear and uncertainty, what we didn't know and weren't sure about, there was Anthony Fauci. From the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease adviser and expert who plans to step down in December, was the face we looked to, the voice we heard. An immunologist and physician, Fauci relied on science and fact to guide him — and with those tools, he tried to guide us.
If only more people listened more and pushed back less. If only more people understood, as Fauci did, that our understanding of a pandemic — any pandemic — evolves over time, and that we had to evolve with it. If only the calm, reasoned Brooklyn-accented voice could have somehow been the louder one in a room full of ugly and often-incorrect noise.
Fauci wasn't as much of a household name before the COVID-19 pandemic. But he has served in his post as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, and he led the fight against many outbreaks over the decades, from Ebola and SARS to, perhaps most significantly, AIDS.
Fauci wasn't without his critics or his faults. When he first came to NIAID during the AIDS crisis, activists blamed Fauci for the slow pace of clinical trials, saying he was ignoring the epidemic. But Fauci worked with those activists, finding ways to expand trials, improve the drug approval process, update data-collection efforts, and develop treatments for HIV and AIDS, and ways to get those treatments to those who've needed them.
And Fauci ran up against political blockades and backlash, too, from former President Ronald Reagan and, more recently, from former President Donald Trump. In his destructive effort to downplay the pandemic, Trump at times tried to sideline or silence Fauci, even stopping him from testifying before Congress and, later, threatening to fire Fauci (which he didn't have the power to do) if he was reelected. Some Trump supporters, and others who opposed COVID-19 mandates and vaccinations, demonized him, with personal attacks and death threats.
It's hard enough to lead the nation through a pandemic even if everyone had been on the same page in full support. Fauci's job was made infinitely more difficult by the lack of support, open communication and, perhaps most significantly, trust in science. Like those he worked with, Fauci, was a politician and television personality of sorts, and at times made mistakes, such as not encouraging mask wearing early in the COVID-19 crisis.
But Fauci remained an important source of truth, grounding himself and the nation in the facts, the data and the science. During an interview with Newsday in early 2021, in the early days of the vaccine rollout, I asked him about those who opposed vaccination and how to address their concerns and get more shots into more arms. Fauci provided a clear path on how to best communicate between scientist and skeptic.
"You've got to understand their skepticism and their concern, and don't be accusatory to them when you're trying to convince them, based on science, why they should get vaccinated," Fauci said.
It was good advice then, and, in light of a return of polio, concern over monkeypox, continued worry about COVID-19 and the unknown next pandemic that likely could emerge in the future, it's good advice now.
Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.