Historical Examples of Politicized Public Health
Lately, it seems like health—something personal for all of us—has become part of a wider debate that is taking place in the political sphere. Before the pandemic, feeling the onset of a cold wasn’t cause for panic in the way that it is now, and the subject of vaccines wasn’t nearly as controversial. It seems hard to believe that health has ever been as partisan as it is now, but there have been several instances when health and politics have intersected in our nation’s history: the AIDS crisis, the abortion debate, and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
Politics and public health have always been intertwined, with advancements in medicine coinciding with political action. As we learned more about the dangers and health risks around us, we turned to our government to pass laws and rules for our own protection. Political action has had both a negative and positive impact on health, and there is no better example of that than the AIDS epidemic and the battle over reproductive rights in the form of abortion access and Planned Parenthood funding.
AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) was first discovered in 1981 when a few cases of a rare lung infection were reported. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the fact that symptoms didn’t show up immediately allowed the disease to spread largely unnoticed. When more cases were revealed among gay men specifically, the terms “Gay Men’s Pneumonia” and “gay cancer” first appeared in the news. For years, politicians did little to address the crisis that was happening, and the only money raised to fund research and treatment was raised by activists and those in the LGBTQ community.
It was due to activists in the community, specifically gay men, that there was any attention being given to the crisis at all. It took four years of protests, marches, and “die-ins’’ on Capitol Hill until September of 1985 for President Ronald Reagan to speak about AIDS for the first time publicly.
It’s safe to say that the LGBTQ community was disproportionately affected by the AIDS epidemic, which is why many politicians deemed it unimportant. We can learn from the AIDS epidemic about the importance of activism and community work, but we can also learn that by doing nothing at all, the government can cause harm to the people it is supposed to protect. Politics affect those who are at the center of a health crisis.
When the number of COVID-19 deaths reached 100,000 in the United States, the announcement covered the entire front page of The New York Times. When 100,000 people had died from AIDS, the story only made the bottom half of page 18. No names were listed and no attention brought to the community this disease devastated. This comparison makes it explicit that the impact of media attention, supporting legislation, resources, and funding for research is why politics plays an important role in public health.
As with the AIDS epidemic, abortion is another public health issue which seems to hang in the balance based on how willing lawmakers are to address the needs of the people. The divide that the pro or anti-abortion supporters walk is nothing short of an unscalable rift caused by slippery slope arguments rooted deeply in moral and religious beliefs.
The product is a true phenomenon where one side is spurred by religious fervor and supposed care for precious unborn human lives, and one side aims to liberate women from standards imposed on them by the patriarchy and assert a woman’s right to choose whether or not to proceed with a pregnancy. The irony is not lost when people protesting against the vaccine mandates chant “my body, my choice” are often the same ones who would like to like to see abortion abolished. At heart, our views on health and medicine are shaped by new challenges and attitudes about our morals, our common understandings toward the human body, gender roles, sexuality, bodily autonomy, and reproductive health.
Division in the United States over COVID-19
Each of us walk the line between prioritizing our own health and the health of our neighbors. This pandemic has brought into sharp focus how conflicts arise between people with differences in moral perspective, views on individual freedoms, and levels of trust both in our governments and in medical professionals. These divisions seem so intense to us because of the length and severity of the pandemic, the broad range of policies that states and countries have implemented, and the forces of the media working in opposite directions to divide our opinions.
The “do your own research” motto has, unfortunately, led to the equivocation of established medical findings with counter-government bloggers and cash-grabbing grandstanders. You know that you can look up information about the vaccine and how it works, but you also know that you won’t understand it any better or discover anything new that scientists haven’t already discovered.
The fact that famous conservative commentators like Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, radio personality Joe Rogan, and even Senator Ron Johnson have pushed for taking medications unproven to treat COVID-19 such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin is the perfect example of how political leaders are fostering distrust of scientists and doctors, and they are putting people at risk. It should be cause for extreme concern that some people do a quick Google search or watch a YouTube video and are suddenly willing to take horse deworming medicine instead of an FDA approved vaccine. (This isn’t a joke: there is a drug called ivermectin that is used to treat infections caused by parasitic worms, and enough people are taking it for COVID-19 that the FDA had to put out a statement saying that there is no evidence that it is an effective treatment).
Politicized health hurts the public, but rampant misinformation is not an excuse for people who remain willfully ignorant. YouTube and other mainstream media outlets have added clauses to close down accounts and censor videos which promote medical misinformation, earning the ire of many on the right-wing; however, many still warn of a ‘medical deep state’ headed by Dr. Fauci, the WHO, and corporate elites.
The effect? Thousands of people have chosen to trust parasitic worm medication for cows and horses touted by non-medical professionals rather than receive a proven, free, and readily acceptable vaccine. This baffling distrust of our public health officials and agencies has led to conservative news broadcasters censoring their own hosts while government leaders in Mississippi and Missouri have had to make public statements denouncing the use of these drugs to self-treat against the coronavirus. Trust in scientists has been completely shot, and it’s hard to point the blame anywhere else than the right-wing media machine.
But what does this chaos all stem from? Is it due to an extreme lack of trust in the government? Is it idiocy? Or are people too unwilling to agree with the other party? Maybe it’s all three.
When something like a public health crisis occurs and the ensuing panic starts to set in, those in positions of power jump at the opportunity to take control. Either they aim to defend their people or protect the people. One is a power play and the other is a solemn duty.
Encouragement of the vaccine should be a bipartisan effort, as the Trump administration oversaw its creation, while the Biden Administration oversaw it’s distribution. Despite this, Republican lawmakers who once praised the Trump administration for facilitating the accelerated development of the vaccine are now questioning the vaccine’s effectiveness and expressing hesitancy to get the jab themselves.
The U.S. is hotly divided over the vaccine due to the politics surrounding it. Doubt has been sown into the CDC’s numbers and the effectiveness of both mask wearing and the vaccines themselves. But if we compare the percentage of those vaccinated among our representatives and the total U.S. population, there is a stark difference.
As reported by USA Today, 100% of Democrat senators and representatives are vaccinated, 92% of Senate Republicans are vaccinated, and 54% of House Republicans are vaccinated, with nearly half of House Republicans refusing to say publicly whether they are vaccinated or not. Suffice it to say, the vast majority of Congress is vaccinated, yet many on the right seem to be playing on the doubts and suspicions of their base to generate support. This is at odds with the rest of the population. 88% of people registered as democrats are vaccinated, but only 55% of republicans are, according to NBC News. There is a clear difference in who is getting vaccinated.
Mask shaming on one side and vaccine shaming on the other has produced a kind of fiery smugness between anti-mask and anti-vaxxers, or rather, pro-natural immunity on one side and the disgruntled populace of vaccinated who find themselves still having to wear masks months after receiving the vaccine jab on the other. Arguments against the vaccine run the gamut from its emergency authorization status from the FDA, the benefits of a natural immunity, the supposed dangers of getting inoculated, and to just not wanting to conform to mandates (i.e. not letting the government tell me what to do).
The double standard of the anti-mask backlash can be broken down by the tacit laws against public nudity and seatbelt requirements. Within the anti-mask frame, you could hurl obscenities at the federal government and chastise those who mindlessly follow their tyrannical laws, as Big Brother forces you to wear pants in public or a seatbelt in your car. You could say the government has stripped you of your bodily autonomy and is trying to penalize you for what you do in your own car, regardless of how it might be safer for you to follow the rules. You can sit naked behind the wheel in your garage without a mask and there’s no problem, but the minute you get out at Publix parking lot, suddenly everyone has a problem with you. But what ever happened to leaving each other alone and respecting other people’s decisions? The fact is, this country has never truly been that way. We’ve been trying to police each other’s habits, clothing choices, sexual preferences, and political affiliations for decades.
When the Government Gets Involved in Personal Health
We tend, undoubtedly as a result of mainstream media influence, to look to leaders and politicians for guidance about how to talk about, feel about, or even think about certain issues. When former President Trump downplayed COVID-19 over and over again despite the number of deaths increasing exponentially, it automatically created a divide in society over how we should respond to the pandemic. President Trump has often compared himself to President Reagan, as seen in his use of the slogan, “Make America Great Again” which was coined by the Reagan campaign in the 1980s. Ironically, there are comparisons to be made for the two republican presidents, but not in the way President Trump might hope.
They were both presidents during two different public health crises, and as the country’s leader, they witnessed hundreds of thousands of Americans die, while the government dismissed the scientists and doctors whose job it was to protect American lives from disease. In many other countries where government leaders have heeded the advice of scientists, people were able to come together during this crisis to weather the storm. For example, in Ireland, Denmark, Taiwan, Singapore, and the Netherlands, mask mandates and excellent contact tracing were able to keep community spread at bay. The opposite has occurred in the United States. The back and forth arguments and the inconsistent health policies from state to state have only served to prolong the pandemic.
The vast differences in response between republican and democrat controlled state governments laid a clear division in the sand. One party was going to adhere to the recommendations of the CDC through mask and social distancing mandates to weather the storm, while the other was going to use the fear and uncertainty to frame themselves as the rebellious freedom-fighting martyrs they so often try to embody.
Neither side of the political spectrum has had a clean record throughout the pandemic. The entire debate over lockdowns proved that there was no right answer. Democratic governors advocated for shutting down small businesses, and while that may have been better for reducing the spread of COVID-19, it also hurt small businesses and their workers who had to rely on the income and couldn’t afford to stay closed for an extended period of time. Many Republican governors, on the other hand, have refused to implement mask mandates in schools, even though they have been proven to reduce transmission of the virus.
Watching this pandemic unfold over the past year and a half has been downright depressing for all Americans. For a short time though, most of us thought that the vaccine was the light at the end of the tunnel. But now, it’s the people who are storming into Target and saying that wearing a mask is a violation of their constitutional rights who we’re relying on to get vaccinated to protect all of us. Vaccine mandates are also being called “unconstitutional,” yet students have had to show proof of vaccination for years to attend public schools and universities.
Combined with the fact that vaccination rates have only slowly eked forward since June— even after more long term studies have been conducted and the FDA has approved the Pfizer vaccine which has been free and readily available in most part of the country for months— it seems that a sizable portion of the population is simply unwilling to get the vaccine shot despite the progress of epidemiologists and insistence of our public officials and neighbors.
It appears that we have become numb to a massive amount of people dying as if it is inevitable, especially here in the South until death affects us personally. How can we come back from that? How can we see each other as more than numbers or faces behind a screen? One piece of hope we can cling to is the fact that along the political spectrum, there are many people in the middle who aren’t screaming and shouting. But maybe those people are the ones who should be the loudest, and maybe then they can overpower the voices on the fringes and put this whole sorry chapter of our history behind us for good.