Even as the nation battles the Covid-19 pandemic, leaders at all levels need to protect our democracy by both allowing appropriate expression of different points of view while also ensuring that extremists do not shove themselves into the center of public policy-making about crucial health concerns.
Americans — to their great distaste — have gotten a dose of the serious consequences that can occur when fringe, counter-factual thinking infects leaders thinking (or what passes for thought). Private companies and medical experts had to rise up to push back against President Trump’s “musing” or “sarcasm” about somehow “getting into the body” bleach, disinfectant products, and powerful light sources to attack the novel coronavirus.
As the New York Times reported:
“Trump’s hopeful comments about disinfectant use coincided with an alarming rise in accidents with household cleaning products in recent weeks, according to doctors who monitor activity at poison call centers. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a growing number of calls to poison control centers and a significant increase in accidental exposures to household cleaners and disinfectants.”
While the idea of ingesting harsh products or exposing the body to harsh light sources might be, in more normal times, considered risible or eccentric, it is, sadly, “out there” and part of the beliefs of odd groups of Americans. They include Alan Keyes, a conservative activist and former presidential candidate who has promoted a chlorine dioxide-based product. As the New York Times reported:
“The [federal Food and Drug Administration] has moved to tamp down on merchants online that have encouraged the ingestion of products made with disinfectants and cleaning agents, including chlorine dioxide, a compound commonly used as a bleach. The products have found favor with conspiracy theorists and fringe activists online who peddle chlorine dioxide as ‘ or M.M.S. One such activist, Mark Grenon, claimed after the president’s briefing that ‘Trump has got the M.M.S. and all the info,’ according to The Guardian. Mr. Grenon did not reply to an email seeking comment, nor did the White House.”
As for exposing the body to powerful light sources for purported health benefits, this was a widely circulating bit of wellness woo-woo, which crazy as it may seem, became a fad among unknown numbers of a certain set. Just before Thanksgiving, lifestyle trend-tracking news organizations reported on “Metaphysical Meagan” and her advocacy on a popular, photograph-based social media platform of “perineal tanning” — the outlandish claim that exposing one’s backside and its most sensitive nether area to the sun “helped strengthen one’s organs, promote health and longevity, and regulate one’s circadian rhythm.” Josh Brolin, an actor known for his starring in movies like the “Avengers” and “No Country for Old Men,” took to social media, too, to describe how he suffered painful burns trying this unfounded exposure.
It would be easy to guffaw and dismiss this nonsense, except it got covered in New York news outlets that long have captured the attention of a Big Apple-denizen who now occupies the White House. Would it be a surprise that a low-brow, anti-science administration — in a time of great uncertainty and extreme stress — would reflexively foster the ideas of the fringe, especially if they provide a firestorm of reaction that can distract from officials’ performance on vital matters of national governance?
The president, infamously, has danced in dubious fashion with those who, with little evidence, oppose vaccination. It’s incomprehensible that Andrew Wakefield, one of the most disgraced so-called researchers of recent times and the epitome of erroneous and anti-scientific views about vaccinations and public health, was an honored guest during presidential inaugural festivities. The president also asked a much-rebuked scion of the legendary Kennedy clan to head a vaccine review panel, only to abandon the idea later.
Now that a prospective Covid-19 vaccine could turn around Trump’s foundering presidency, he has expressed enthusiasm for inoculations.
The anti-vaxxers, meantime, have joined in with those protesting stringent public health measures to battle the coronavirus, arguing they are causing more suffering — especially economic pain — than is merited.
Vaccination foes, funded by a wealthy few and undisclosed donors, already had become strident in their political protests, including dumping blood on California lawmakers during debates on laws to tighten vaccination requirements for school children as the nation confronted an outbreak of inoculation-preventable infections, notably measles.
As for the protesters opposing stay-at-home orders, social distancing, hand-washing, and wearing face coverings, they have grown more noisy and aggressive in their demonstrations, whether in Southern California or Michigan’s capital, where, under the state’s open-carry laws, they also brandished Confederate flags, military garb, and weaponry (see photo above, posted by Dayna Polehanki, a state senator, on social media). In Chicago, a protester was photographed with a sign emblazoned with an infamous Nazi slogan, causing outrage worldwide. These outbursts may not be born just out of the real and terrible economic strains caused by the pandemic — they may be funded and orchestrated by wealthy, extreme political conservatives on the right. Not good and unacceptable.
In my practice, I see not only the harms patients suffer while seeking medical services but also the benefits they can enjoy by staying healthy and out of the U.S. health care system. The coronavirus threatens to swamp our health resources, which, in their better times, already had notable problems with infections acquired in hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical care giving facilities, as well as major challenges with medical error and misdiagnoses. That said, at this difficult moment, we need to support doctors, hospitals, and public health officials as they marshal science, evidence, and facts to battle the global menace of Covid-19.
Yes, Americans support the appropriate exercise of First and Second Amendment rights, and different and opposing views and ideas are always welcome in a democracy. But the nation has prospered with the abundant exercise of common sense and political policy- and decision-making not from the far ends of the spectrum but from the solid middle. Covid-19 has staggered Americans lives and livelihoods and the economic hardship on this scale has not been seen for decades.
Still, a majority of Americans — 8 in 10 — say strict shelter-in-place guidelines are worth it, to keep people safe from Covid-19 and control the spread of the virus, with just 20% of respondents contending broad shelter-in-place measures are an unnecessary burden “causing more harm than good,” the Kaiser Family Foundation found. Other polls report that Americans agree. Governors who have acted, based on medical-scientific counsel and evidence and fact, have seen their political approval soar, while support has headed far south for the zig-zagging, fact-light federal response.
The Covid-19 pandemic has posed such formidable challenges for the nation that the best capacities of Americans will be required in answer. Divisive, xenophobic, racist, and fringe approaches will not be helpful, and they will be unacceptable. We have much work to do.