When the history of this era is written, special attention should be reserved for the prominent US politicians who dismissed or misrepresented the COVID-19 pandemic for political purposes.

The coronavirus has wreaked untold suffering and damage to this country, and it has been able to do this because we had a major failure of government. To be sure, at the state level many governors have conducted themselves with forthright attention to the risks to their populations. But at the federal level — with the notable exception of the effort to fast-track research and production of a vaccine — we mostly failed to mobilize resources and take the measures necessary to combat the virus.

Instead of a comprehensive, federally led nationwide strategy, President Trump repudiated and disregarded the advice of experts and health officials and offered a misleading narrative about the spread of the virus abating in the spring.

His misinformation was picked up and amplified by news outlets and by politicians. Americans were fed bad information at a time when high-quality information was necessary to stem the spread of the virus and limit the number of deaths.

The result has been devastating, and not just to our public health efforts. We are weaker on the world stage than we were a few years ago, and especially since the start of the pandemic.

The problem with reaching this point was summed up cogently back in October by John Halpin of the Center for American Progress, as part of a study looking at the alarming rise in Americans’ willingness to believe conspiracy theories, unfounded rumors, and already-disproven claims. “If we cannot agree on basic facts about what is going on in our country,” he wrote, “there is little hope of generating consensus on what needs to be done to control the pandemic and fix our economy. Rebuilding public trust in major institutions, and the information they provide the public, is now a national priority.”

I agree. Today, people stick to the news sources they agree with, creating a muddle of American public opinion and making it extremely difficult for policy makers to find the common ground needed to accomplish difficult and ambitious policy goals. This is a significant challenge for the United States, and we have got to get on top of it sooner rather than later.

— Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.