These may be some of the most somber holidays in many Americans’ recent memory. They also may challenge the faithful to translate seasonal religious messages about hope, joy, compassion, and caring for others into practical action, particularly in how the nation treats people who have been battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
While reaching out, past the confines of our homes and health safety measures, and while feasting and enjoying gifts and the merriment of the year’s end, can we also express our gratitude to those whose toil has sustained us through an awful 2020?
Can we say thanks to essential workers — the folks who made the groceries run, who kept big stores humming, who grew, raised, and harvested what we eat, and who made the magic, so endless boxes of needed and desired stuff magically showed up on doorsteps?
Can we sing the praises of those who fed the hungry, nurtured and taught discomforted children and youths, and ensured the elderly and shut-ins weren’t neglected and alone?
Of course, we’ll say blessings for those in front-line health care and public health — and we’ll get an early start on the time of resolutions by promising that fact, evidence, science, and medicine will be held in better stead in the times ahead than they have this year.
It is unacceptable to know, as the Associated Press and Kaiser Health News reported:
“Across the United States, state and local public health officials … have found themselves at the center of a political storm as they combat the worst pandemic in a century. With the federal response fractured, the usually invisible army of workers charged with preventing the spread of infectious diseases has become a public punching bag. Their expertise on how to fight the coronavirus is often disregarded. Some have become the target of far-right activists, conservative groups and anti-vaccination extremists who have coalesced around common goals: fighting mask orders, quarantines and contact tracing with protests, threats, and personal attacks.
“The backlash has moved beyond the angry fringe. In the courts, public health powers are being undermined. Lawmakers in at least 24 states have crafted legislation to weaken public health powers, which could make it more difficult for communities to respond to other health emergencies in the future. ‘What we’ve taken for granted for 100 years in public health is now very much in doubt,’ said Lawrence Gostin, an expert in public health law at Georgetown University … It is a further erosion of the nation’s already fragile public health infrastructure. At least 181 state and local public health leaders in 38 states have resigned, retired, or been fired since April 1, according to an ongoing investigation by The Associated Press and KHN. According to experts, this is the largest exodus of public health leaders in American history. An untold number of lower-level staffers have also left.”
Front-line doctors and nurses, who have taken to social media both to exult at the prospective protection they will get from a coronavirus vaccine and to encourage others to take it, have gotten ugly replies on their posts. The comments question not only the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine but also raise extreme and unfounded claims — whether ad hominem attacks or wild conspiracy theories.
The New York Times, joining other news organizations like Politico, has plumbed the assaults that political partisans, promoted by the White House, launched on federal health agencies, notably the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The latest reports, sourced directly to onetime, ranking political appointees in the giant and important Health and Human Services agency, confirm earlier articles about relentless meddling with medical scientists by the likes of the president’s daughter and his senior political counselors — none with any medical or scientific expertise. This is unacceptable.
The news site Politico also affirmed that the White House was urged to allow the coronavirus to rage in the hopes the nation more quickly would have so many people infected that the disease would burn out due to “herd immunity.” The extremists pushing this position claim that they also would protect the vulnerable, for example, the aged and institutionalized. They have not said how. They also have not explained whether anyone would find it acceptable for millions to die and even millions more to be sickened, potentially with long-term impairment.
Congress finally may throw some assistance to tens of millions of Americans, hungry, jobless, facing eviction, and despairing in a dark winter. But as so many grumble about disrupted and dim holidays, how many Good Samaritans will spend any part of their time off at year’s end to give a hand to neighbors and communities in dire need?
Many of you, thankfully, will do so. You also will help exhausted doctors, nurses, and others working in coronavirus overwhelmed hospitals and other caregiving institutions, as well as first responders and essential workers. They have campaigned to get all of us in the public to stay home as much as possible, to practice excellent hygiene (especially with hand washing), to cover our faces, and to maintain distances. They beg us to avoid spending time in closed, confined spaces with people from outside our immediate households.
Yes, we may miss the amazing holiday rites at houses of worship. We will rue that we cannot celebrate the holidays in big events with family, friends, and work colleagues. We know that restaurants and small businesses are nearing financial collapse — and they need money and support that political partisans seem just fine to throw only at wealthy corporations and an already amply supported Pentagon. We’re packing on pounds and wishing that we could be sweating them off and enjoying the endorphin rush of a great workout at the gym or public pool. We’re weary of being shut in and cut off. We long for many and different pleasures denied, including movies, concerts, sporting events, and myriad social functions.
These will need to wait. In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to afford and access safe, efficient, and excellent health care. This has become an ordeal due to the soaring cost, complexity, and uncertainty of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.
The pandemic has sent us tough circumstances that, among other things, should underscore the importance for each and everyone of us of the importance of our health and the well-being of those we love and those around us. The nation, in a few months, has recorded hundreds of thousands of deaths due to the coronavirus. This is a toll that exceeds the populations of major cities or years of the nation’s various wars. Our viral infections keep breaking records, increasing in the tens of millions. The economy is a mess. Schooling at all levels is wobbly as it never has been. Our loved ones, friends, and neighbors have basic and extreme needs that aren’t getting met — an unacceptable reality in the wealthiest nation in the world. So, we’ll sing, pray, light candles and fires, and hunker down with those we care most about. We’ll know that a better world is possible, and we will have to work together to get to a better place than we were before. That could be a huge gift for our future.
Happy holidays, and please stay healthy all!