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Cosmic Science

When pandemics mix with politics, it’s unhealthy

For years, public health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been playing out scenarios for dealing with pandemics, but the one scenario they didn’t count on was that they’d be hamstrung by their own political leaders.

“I don’t think anybody ever thought that that would happen,” said Maryn McKenna, a veteran reporter on infectious diseases. “And yet, seven months into the pandemic here in the United States, that’s pretty much where we are.”

McKenna and others involved in the response to the coronavirus outbreak discussed the role that politics has played in the pandemic, during a presentation organized by the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Today’s session served as the kickoff for a free weekly series of online events focusing on COVID-19, offered for journalists as well as the public in conjunction with the annual ScienceWriters conference.

Panelists agreed that mixed messages from the nation’s leaders have hampered efforts to combat the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Americans. Just today, Cornell University researchers said their analysis pointed to President Donald Trump as “the single largest driver of misinformation around COVID.”

Such misinformation has taken the form of conspiracy theories about the origins and spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, plus the hype surrounding supposed “miracle” cures and efforts to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak.

Marsha Jones — co-founder and executive director of The Afiya Center, a Texas-based reproductive justice organization — said she’s seen it all before, during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.

“I didn’t think that I would ever see a disease so politicized as HIV was ever again, because for some reason I thought we learned,” she said.

Like the HIV epidemic, the COVID-19 epidemic is dealing a particularly heavy blow to people “who get the least amount of funding, who get the least amount of recognition, who have the worst care,” Jones said.

And even as the outbreak is raging, disadvantaged communities are struggling with the repercussions of systemic racism and urban unrest. “We’re living in a dual epidemic,” Jones said.

Science is suffering along with society, said Peter Daszak, president of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance. His group became the focus of controversy early in the pandemic because it helped train Chinese virologists in Wuhan, which was the outbreak’s global epicenter.

The training effort was part of a federally funded program called PREDICT, which aimed to anticipate cross-species viral outbreaks. The Trump administration let the program expire last year, just before the first COVID-19 cases came to light — and EcoHealth Alliance faced heavy criticism largely because of unfounded accusations that the virus was unleashed from the Wuhan virology lab.

“It’s the right wing, it’s QAnon, it’s people spending hours in their basements doing ‘research’ on the internet to dig up stuff that sounds like a conspiracy,” Daszak said. “And of course, with so much online presence, the president not only allows that to happen, but also promotes it, and seems to believe it himself.”

Scientists tend to be uncomfortable about getting into the political fray, but Daszak said inaction may no longer be an option. “During the HIV pandemic, science got political, and scientists got political,” he said. “It’s no good keeping quiet. You’ve got to push back, and push back strong, and tell the truth about what’s going on. … If you keep quiet, you’ve just basically consigned science to the trash heap.”

So what is to be done? The panelists said the political outlook could brighten next year. There’s already an effort in the works to get a virus surveillance program called Stop Spillover funded, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to revive PREDICT.

McKenna said Biden could also reverse cutbacks in public health spending and shore up the CDC’s data-gathering operation.

But politicians aren’t the only ones who can play a role in repairing public policy on pandemics, Daszak said.

“You’re journalists,” he told the online audience. “So get out there and speak the truth, and push back.”

McKenna said it’s crucial for all journalists to be trained to cover the different facets of coronavirus coverage, ranging from biology to business, from epidemiology to education.

“We should rethink the silos within which we exist as journalists … because it’s entirely possible that a science and public health story like the coronavirus pandemic will come in and cut across all those silos, and demonstrate the degree to which we have not trained each other in the mutual knowledge that we all need,” she said.

Daszak said truth-telling shouldn’t be confined to a newsroom setting.

“Go talk to your neighbors and friends,” he said. “And also, you know, the folks with the Trump sign outside their house. Go have a chat with them, see what they think about masks and school openings. Listen to them, and say a couple of things, a couple of facts, nothing heavy, and just let it settle and move away. … We need a societal change in our understanding of things like this pandemic.”

Jones stressed that you don’t need to be a politician — or a journalist, or a public health worker, for that matter — to parry the pandemic.

“The greatest changes don’t necessarily have to happen in the political arena. “There are changes that can happen outside of that, that will inevitably impact what’s happening in the political arena,” she said.

She advised starting with the place where you have the most influence, even if it’s outside the traditional halls of power.

“If that’s at your house, if that’s on your porch, in the park, in the gym — wherever it is that you have the most power, and you can have the most convincing conversation where you’re talking with somebody who can create change, that’s what you do,” Jones said.

From the CDC: How to protect yourself and others

The next presentation in the “COVID-19 Science and Coverage” series is scheduled for Oct. 7, starting at 5 p.m. ET (2 p.m. PT). The theme is “Reporting on the Pandemic.” Panelists include STAT senior writer Helen Branswell; Laura Helmuth, editor in chief of Scientific American; Patrice Peck, creator of the newsletter Coronavirus News for Black Folks; and Zeynep Tufekci, a contributing writer at The Atlantic

Full disclosure: I’m the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, which is one of the organizers of the series. FiveThirtyEight senior science writer Maggie Koerth, a CASW board member, moderated today’s session. 

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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