It was the last question. “I have to ask you about Santa Claus,” I said at the end of the interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the key medical advisers to the U.S. government during the Corona virus pandemic and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the past 36 years. “What's going to happen with him at Christmas?”
“Well, Santa Claus is exempt from all of this,” Dr. Fauci answered, with the aplomb of someone who has answered thousands of questions like it and will turn 80 precisely on Dec. 24, the day when Santa Claus arrives. “He's got really good innate immunity. He's not going to get infected and he's not going to get anybody else infected. So, you should let him down your chimney to bring the gifts.”
Dr. Fauci's fanciful and brief answer was loaded with wisdom and pragmatism. It pointed to those more vulnerable to Covid-19 – the elderly, obese and with pre-existing medical condition – as well as a solution to the world crisis: do not infect others, do not get infected.
Before the vaccines arrived to save us, Fauci was our vaccine – in other words, our best protection against the virus. Facing the lies and arrogant ignorance of President Donald Trump – who once said the virus would disappear “miraculously” and on April 3 that the risk for Americans “remains very low” – it was Dr. Fauci who brought us back to reality and gave us the right information.
That clearly infuriated Trump, who hates to be contradicted. But the president never dared to fire Fauci.
“I want to understand your role when President Trump lies about the pandemic,” I asked him during the interview in late November. “I think if you ask anybody else, they will tell you I am one of the most forthcoming, frank people that you can possibly imagine,” he told me. “I have, in the White House Task Force and in meetings, gone up and spoken things that might have been at some variance with what the president was saying. So, I don't think that one can point to me and say that I have not been frank and able to speak up, which I have.”
Unfortunately, things have been getting worse. We have already passed 300,000 dead in the United States due to Covid-19 and there are days when 3,000 and more people die. The intensive care units in many hospitals are filled to capacity, and if things don't change we'll soon pass 20 million cases.
“Can you recognize that the official (White House) Corona virus Task Force has failed?” I asked Fauci. “No, I don't think you can say that, Mr. Ramos,” he replied, with a serious tone. “I think you have to put into account that this has been an extraordinarily unusual situation, with a virus that has devastated not only the United States but the rest of our planet.”
He later asked for more time to explain himself. The White House task force issued its public health recommendations, like using masks, washing hands, maintaining safe distances and avoiding crowded places, especially indoors. But the implementation of those guidelines varied from state to state. “There are some that officially did not pay as much attention to those guidelines as we would have liked. And there were those that tried to, but the citizenry, the population in the state, didn't think it was particularly dangerous, and went ahead and did things like congregating at bars and being in closed spaces without masks. That's what I mean when I pull back when you're saying it was a failure of the task force.”
There's no doubt that many things could have been done differently to avoid so many dead from the pandemic. One, perhaps the most important, was ordering the mandatory use of masks in public spaces. But instead of being a medical and public health decision, it became a political debate. Trump sent the wrong message again and again when he refused to use a mask in public.
We lacked timely virus tests, an effective tracking system, coordination between states and, above all, honesty from the president. Trump hid information about the dangers of the pandemic when we most needed it. “I wanted to always play it down,” he confessed to journalist Bob Woodward in March. “I still like playing it down, because I don't;t want to create a panic.” We lacked leadership. And when a president is wrong on an issue like this, a lot of people can get sick.
But what we can say is that things would have been much worse without Dr. Fauci, who has dealt directly with six U.S. presidents. He knows how to defend himself from viruses and bad politicians, with facts, a lot of research, patience, candor and a lot of science.
Santa Claus can come for Christmas. Dr. Fauci has said it, and I do believe in him.