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Faye Flam

The Biggest Mistake of the Pandemic Is Still Haunting Us

The World Health Organization took two years to admit Covid-19 spread through airborne particles. We’re still dealing with the fallout.

The choose-your-own-risk phase of the pandemic is underway.

The choose-your-own-risk phase of the pandemic is underway.

Photographer: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

We’re now being left to choose our own risks when it comes to Covid-19, but it’s clear that many people still don’t recognize the importance of fresh air. Some super-cautious people don’t seem to realize how much danger can be mitigated by socializing outdoors or opening windows. Others seem not to understand how much risk persists indoors even when others are more than six feet away.

One big reason the public may still be so confused: the World Health Organization’s long delay in recognizing that Covid was spreading through airborne transmission. On March 28, 2020, the WHO listed on its website as a “FACT” that “Covid19 is NOT airborne.” Everyone was confused back then, so being wrong was understandable — but showing that degree of confidence was not. There were credible scientists at the time saying airborne spread was happening. Worse still, it took two years to change course — a delay experts pondered in a recent article in Nature, “Why WHO Took Two Years to Say Covid is Airborne.” It was a mistake that eroded public trust and confused people about how to avoid the virus.