Guest columnists Daniel Levy and Donald Thea: The pandemic’s other cause

  • Concord Hospital medical staff at one of the two undisclosed COVID-19 testing sites holds a testing kit. GEOFF FORESTER

Published: 1/11/2021 3:36:00 PM
Modified: 1/11/2021 3:35:39 PM

As we continue to struggle through the misery and death from this novel pandemic, it is essential to recognize that, in addition to the newly evolved SARS-CoV2 virus there has been a second, equally novel factor augmenting the disease and increasing its severity: the intentional promotion by high government officials of actions which have spread the epidemic and prevented its containment for purely political ends.

The U.S. leads the world in epidemiologic know-how and, under “normal” circumstances, we would be following a clear national strategy for viral containment, appropriately directing medical resources, promoting a universal education program, and mustering our formidable public health resources for battle.

Most significantly, our leaders across the political spectrum would have delivered a unified message that we are all in this together and that public health measures, although inconvenient or unpleasant at the moment, must be diligently followed as they are the only way we have of controlling the illness and minimizing its impact.

As has been extensively documented in national newspapers, this did not happen. Federal actions undermining our struggle against this virus have included the removal of well-trained public health officers from administrative positions and replacing them with political hacks; failure to procure material resources and funding needed to treat pandemic victims and protect health care workers; suppression of testing and data gathering needed to follow the location and extent of pandemic spread; promotion of mass gatherings that accelerate mass infection; and the complete failure to produce any medically credible national plan to fight this plague.

Rather than working to extinguish the paranoia, rumor mongering, and quackery, which epidemics breed, many of our “public servants” have, instead become “agents provocateurs,” fanning the flames of public discord that they should be working to extinguish. They have waged a campaign to depict medical and public health personnel and the lifesaving advice they have offered as “the enemy.”

Well respected figures in public health and heroic front line physicians have been depicted as venal, ill-intentioned, or money grubbing and demonstrations intended to prevent necessary public safety measures have been encouraged. All of this, pushed from the highest political levels for the purpose of strengthening political influence and manipulating a political base of support.

Predictions of how the United States should have handled the COVID-19 pandemic using either the example of successful national programs (New Zealand, Taiwan, etc.) or estimates based on sound epidemiology, suggest the impact of governmental malfeasance has been to increase by at least twofold and possibly threefold our collective suffering and loss of life. This translates into hundreds of thousands of preventable infections and thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Yet this tragedy is further compounded: efforts to reinstitute sound public health stewardship must now contend with the substantial fraction of Americans who have been manipulated into a state of confusion and rage by their own government. Many now reject sound public health advice and plan to refuse vaccination.

The continuing spectacle of elected officials asserting that this plague is a triviality even as the corpses pile up is a level of callous beyond stunning. Their mass inaction is stunning. Their sabotage is stunning. And the willingness of large segments of our population to accept this behavior is stunning.

How was this allowed to happen? We do not have all of the answers to questions posed by the moment; but this does not mean that we cannot start righting the wrongs we have witnessed. We in the medical and public health community will build back our injured public health systems.

We will continue — loudly and publicly — to give support to health care workers who have been threatened for performing their duties. We will advocate for legislation which protects biomedical institutions from political manipulation and protects the integrity of their intellectual product. And we will and must reinforce safeguards around public health data collection to prevent political interference and insure the continuous availability of reliable numbers.

Vaccines have at last arrived and the incoming administration has made clear signals they have prioritized the rebuilding of public health. Its appointees to key health administrative positions are drawn from among the best in medicine. At the current rate of 2 million infections per week, these most welcome changes cannot come soon enough!

But, as we repair our public health system and recover from the trauma of COVID, we must not lose sight of just what brought a double misery down upon our country and those who choose to pursue a malignant vision rather than uphold their oaths of public service. This subversion of the public health infrastructure for political ends which they have inflicted is something new. It is, arguably, as deadly as the disease which bore it. Like any scourge, we need to understand it in its complexity and we need to learn to prevent it.

As all of us in medicine know, pandemics happen — you can, unfortunately, count on it. We have learned to fight them and can minimize their impact; but if a pandemic is again accompanied by this perverse governmental sabotage, then, again, despair will rule the day.

Dr. Daniel Levy is a practicing internist living in Northampton. Dr. Donald Thea is a professor in the Department of Global Health of Boston University School of Public Health.

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