Casualties of a Pandemic: Truth, Trust and Transparency

Essay by Frank D. LoMonte at the Journal of Civic Information: “In an April 1 interview with NPR’s “Morning Edition,” retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, explained that, in a crisis situation, accurate information from government authorities can be crucial in reassuring the public – and in the absence of accurate information, speculation and rumor will proliferate. Joni Mitchell, who’s probably never before appeared in the same paragraph with Stanley McChrystal, might have put it a touch more poetically: “Don’t it always seem to go; That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

The outbreak of the coronavirus strain COVID-19, which prompted the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to declare a public health emergency on Jan. 31, 2020,3 is introducing Americans to a newfound world of austerity and loss. Professional haircuts, sit-down restaurant meals and recreational plane flights increasingly seem like memories from a bygone golden age (small inconveniences, to be sure, alongside the suffering of thousands who’ve died and the families they’ve left behind).

Access to information from government agencies, too, is adapting to a mail-order, drive-through society. As public-health authorities reached consensus that the spread of COVID-19 could be contained only by eliminating non-essential travel and group gatherings, strict adherence to open-meeting and public-records laws became a casualty alongside salad bars and theme-park rides. Governors and legislatures relaxed, or entirely waived, compliance with statutes that require agencies to open their meetings to in-person public attendance and promptly fulfill requests for documents.

As with all other areas of public life, some sacrifices in open-government formalities are unavoidable. With agencies down to a sustenance-level crew of essential workers, it’s unrealistic to expect that decades-old paper documents will be speedily located and produced. And it’s unsafe to invite people to congregate at public hearings to address their elected officials. But the public shouldn’t be alone in the sacrifice….(More)”.