There’s been a massive failure of leadership in the United States in preparation, containment, treatment and protecting our residents from the cascading effects of the COVID-19 outbreak.
As Board members of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), public health professionals and women of color, we feel the need to speak out about this failure in leadership. Our administration refused to prepare for a pandemic, or act when COVID-19 first appeared last year. As a result, many lives will be lost.
Because of this administration’s failure to lead, the most vulnerable in our society - seniors, school-age children, poor individuals and families, the homeless, uninsured and undocumented - will sacrifice the most.
The modern world hasn’t seen many pandemics, but evidence suggests they are becoming more frequent. With an increase in globalization - including growth of international trade and personal travel - comes accelerated rates at which communicable diseases can travel.
This global trend was realized during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, and there was a lack of preparedness at that time in protecting the public’s health despite scenario planning. Experts at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relied on lessons from the 2005 outbreak of avian influenza A (H5N1), which was thought to be the biggest threat of our time.
More than a decade later, here we are - confronted with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), a global pandemic we knew in advance was headed our way. But our leaders did nothing.
There is a long history in the United States of targeting and demonizing specific populations in times of unrest. It is well known the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in China. We must all publicly denounce the increase of racist attacks and discrimination against the Asian-American community, as anxiety about COVID-19 spreads.
This is a fast-moving crisis, with guidance and policy decisions changing daily. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, an additional supplemental personal safety and financial security relief package was finally enacted, which will deliver some relief to many individuals and families in most need.
This act is just the first of several measures the public needs. Health aides, nurses, physicians and other healthcare practitioners are on the frontline of this pandemic, putting their own lives at risk to care for all of us, regardless of whether you’re homeless, living with a disability, a senior citizen, a legal or undocumented immigrant worker, to name a few of our most vulnerable populations during these times.
Effective leadership is essential. Strong leadership makes a difference in health outcomes. As public and environmental health professionals and women of color, we have a unique understanding of how voting can empower populations, change communities, and transform nations.
We acknowledge that one of the most significant actions we all can take in the COVID-19 pandemic response, and what’s necessary to change our level of preparedness is asserting the urgency of voting.
When it comes to voting for health, we offer four recommendations:
First, examine the public health track record of persons seeking to be elected. We recommend that they have a demonstrated commitment to public health along with a history of success. Good leaders will rely on evidence-based and data-driven approaches to inform policies and actions that protect public health. And when public health isn’t their area of expertise, they will surround themselves with professionals and frontline community leaders who possess profound expertise in the field and its impacts.
Second, voting for public health means voting for candidates who value effective risk communication. There is no time more urgent to ensure unified messaging than during a pandemic. Any leader who deserves our vote would realize the health dangers in disseminating mixed messages in public health emergencies, messages that frighten the public, or messages that are not informed by sound science.
Third, any good leader will recognize how miscommunication, delay or lack of clear and honest communications could adversely harm both the physical and mental health in affected communities. In addition, strong leaders who prioritize public health ensure that risk communication exercises cultural competence so as to reach all communities.
Fourth, the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered ways that a lack of public health preparedness could undermine health equity and widen the gap of disparities for certain communities. Leaders with a strong commitment to health equity and justice make informed decisions to protect all communities, rather than as an afterthought in action planning.
To prepare for the next public health emergency - while simultaneously practicing precautionary measures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) such as social distancing skills, hygiene best practices and what to do when you or a loved one is asymptomatic - each of us needs to be a change agent, who shifts our political landscape towards supporting public health. It begins by casting our votes.
Voting for public health requires identifying leaders with a strong track-record of public health prioritization, that value effective risk communication, and are committed to the advancement of health equity and justice.
It’s not all despair. We have hope, because 2020 is a vital election year. The power is in our hands, and here’s what we can do: VOTE.
It is our civic responsibility to vote, so weathering the new norm of how you need to cast your vote during this public health emergency is critical in ensuring the elected officials and lawmakers we put in office have an agenda and strategy to lift up equitable and affordable public health policies. That is the only way we can respond to the current crisis and prepare the U.S. for future crises.
Joy Blackwood is the Director of DC Strategy for People’s Action and People’s Action Institute, leads the DC operations, federal policy actions and works to bring the spirit and priorities of our national network from the field into our nation’s Capital. She is one of the co-founding members and a board member of the Green Leadership Trust, Board Secretary and DEIJ Chair for Maryland League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, co-founding member of the Green Leadership Trust and serves on the Board of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Dr. Natasha DeJarnett has been a leader in environmental health research for over 10 years. Her positions in national environmental and public health associations as well as academia has advanced research agendas for the environmental health workforce, established successful national climate change and health initiatives, and inspired the next generation of environmental health professionals. In addition, she serves on the Boards of Citizens’ Climate Education and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Surili Sutaria Patel is a champion for diversity and works to advance health equity and environmental justice while promoting public health solutions. She is also a leader in strategic development that bridges the gap between public health programs and sound policies. In addition, she serves on the Board of Physicians for Social Responsibility and board-led environment and health committees.