By Steve Smith
A common thread running through nearly every conversation I’ve had lately with health professionals is the politicization of public health. After the necessities of the editorial assignment are covered, our discussions unwaveringly and unavoidably turn to the ways in which Covid has basically messed up everything. Then comes the venting of frustration with the elected officials who seem to have gone out of their way to make everything about this pandemic even worse.
There are a couple of things you’d think would never happen during a public health crisis. In a “normal” society, where the vast majority of people respect both the constitution and each other, most of us would recognize the social responsibility each of us has to stop the spread of a deadly virus that’s still killing people by the thousands. But this is America in 2021. We’re so far from “normal” that we couldn’t see it with the Hubble Telescope.
On September 15 The Washington Post reported that one in 500 Americans has died of Covid. As we approached this grim milestone I thought, perhaps naively, that more people would abjure vaccine conspiracy theories, behave responsibly, get the vaccine and basically get their heads out of their asses (to save a little typing I will use the abbreviation GTHOTA).
Had we started off in 2019 with a president and administration that respected public health officials, the press, and science itself, I am convinced we would have licked Covid by now. What we had instead was an administration led by a dangerous sociopath who politicized the pandemic from day one by literally calling it “a Democrat hoax,” proclaiming that “it will go away magically,” discouraging mask wearing and openly speculating during a White House press event that injecting bleach into one’s system could be the magic remedy.
The vaccines are here!
Earlier this year we heard the news: Vaccines are on the way! Let’s pull together like we did during World War II and after 9/11 and kick Covid’s butt! Oh wait, you don’t believe in history or science? You don’t want your civil liberties to be infringed upon? An opinion host on your favorite “alternative facts” TV network says the government shouldn’t be telling you what to do?
The ICUs are full of people who would rather die than let the government tell them what to do. Willfully ignorant or hopelessly influenced by widespread misinformation, many of those who refused to be vaccinated, or just waited too long, now regret their inaction. Others, not able to own up to the suffering they’ve brought upon themselves and their families, simply deny they have Covid.
Can’t we just get along?
Amid an unprecedented surge in tantrums by airline passengers and restaurant patrons, The Washington Post reports that violence against health care workers has skyrocketed in the past year. At Cox Medical Center in Branson, Mo., violence against hospital staff increased dramatically from 2019 to 2020, “with the pandemic greatly compounding the issue.” The number of assaults increased from 40 to 123, while reported injuries jumped from 17 to 78, the hospital said.
In response to the uptick in violence, up to 400 hospital staff members will soon have panic buttons attached to their badges, which they can use to alert security guards if they’re “having trouble” with a patient. Chalk up another one for the human race.
Is this really happening? Can’t we as a society do better? Not in the view of the folks who are profiting from vaccine misinformation, or the craven politicians and their operatives who do nothing to debunk misinformation. They see mask and vaccine debates as nothing more than high- octane fuel for fundraising. As reported by The New York Times, YouTube is finally banning the accounts of several prominent anti-vaccine activists from its platform, including those of Joseph Mercola and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., as part of an effort to remove all content that falsely claims that approved vaccines are dangerous.
In a blog post, YouTube said it would remove videos claiming that vaccines do not reduce rates of transmission or contraction of disease, and content that includes misinformation on the makeup of the vaccines. Claims that approved vaccines cause autism, cancer or infertility, or that the vaccines contain trackers, will also be removed.
Getting back to those elected officials
Sure, some of the governors in the south – in Alabama, Arkansas and West Virginia for example – have gotten onboard and publicly implored their residents to get vaccinated, but GTHOTA takes a little time. In Florida, the politicization of public health has apparently made it perfectly acceptable for governor Ron DeSantis, during a pandemic, to raise money by selling T-shirts with a message that mocked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top epidemiologist. It’s all so bewildering, but certainly not new. We saw it becoming part of our “new normal” during The Former Guy’s 2016 campaign (apparently he could insult his way to the Oval Office) and the four years during which literally everything was subject to TFG’s impulsive bullying.
That brings me to governor DeSantis' battle against school mask mandates, an effort that is both purely political and completely lacking in common sense. Thanks to a recent appeals court ruling, Florida has the ability to continue withholding school board members’ salaries in districts that require students to wear masks.
So here we sit in late 2021, with only a little more than half the population (56 percent as of September 30) fully vaccinated and the Delta variant raging, and health care workers are walking off the job because they don’t want to comply with employers’ vaccine mandates. The employers in this case being health and hospital systems – the people who are charged with healing, not spreading. At this point you’re asking yourself: Now it’s the health care professionals who can’t GTHOTA?
Even with the safe-and-effective assurance of full FDA approval, the anti-vaccine mob cries, “We don’t know what’s in it“ and “The government is experimenting on us” or “If I take the vaccine I’ll get Covid!” Is this the United States of America or 14thCentury Europe? No, it’s just a place where some people can’t GTHOTA.
They will attend a rally, plunk down their money for a ridiculous T-shirt with a snarky anti-Biden or anti-Fauci slogan and delve into the darkest regions of the Internet for “alternative facts” about vaccines, but they won’t get vaccinated. To them I say, “Congratulations, you’ve achieved the Covid Trifecta: Contributed to the fundraising frenzy of the far right, done your part to prolong the pandemic and made yourself look incredibly stupid.” And if you haven’t been vaccinated, there is a strong probability that you’ll get very sick.
It’s all quite avoidable, and it’s all because of the politicization of public health.