More people have died of COVID-19 in the United States than in any other country. This has to be one of the greatest public health failures of the modern age. How did it happen? How did certain segments of the public and political class lose faith in science, medicine and the facts? And how can we fix it?
The war on science began long ago, and was fought not in public squares but around specific NIMBY
projects and out of a lack of a sense of a collective good.
It may go back to the anti-fluoride movement. Fluoride is a natural miracle — a naturally occurring element that strengthens teeth, reducing tooth decay by 60% in kids who drink fluoridated water. Enter the anti-science crowd arguing fluoride is a government plot, bad for kids and a load of other malarkey. So, when a community like Manchester opened the discussion on fluoride, an anti-government and anti-science fringe was able to delay something that helps working families keep their kids healthy.
Next up, wind power-a discussion rich with trash-science-with all kinds of wild theories that wind turbines cause brain tumors, and wipe out entire bird populations. Not that coal plants haven’t proven environmental consequences too— but most of this junk came from folks who worried that a few turbines might lower their property values.
Then, the rise of the anti-vax movement — ridiculous theories that inoculations against real killers such as measles could lead to autism. The lack of evidence did not stop these parents from leaving their kids vulnerable to all kinds of illnesses.
Having been in the fight with these movements, I can say this — there are lots of good organizations working hard to support a public health policy that saves lives. But, in a nation where we spend more each year on defense than on public health and education combined, it is not enough.
How did we get here with such resistance to vaccines, social distancing and common sense? Both federal and state governments failed to plan, prepare and educate. As a result, the US has had more deaths than any other nation from COVID-19. It comes back to trust and communication. This is what we need to focus on now.
We pride ourselves as a nation of rugged individualists — like the cowboys of old, we all strive to be different. But that seems to be at odds with public health. Japan, a nation of 126 million, has had fewer than 4,000 deaths. And while even Japan has its anti-maskers, the nation has fallen inline in their effort to fight the spread. As a result, Japan has been able to keep its economy open, and keep more business and schools open.
So, what next? Obviously, scientists and medical experts, not politicians, should be in-charge of public policy. We need to invest in outreach and communication: PSAs, direct mail and school programs. Ignorance, allowed to stand, leads to falsehoods being accepted as facts. While other nations placed PSA’s on the COVID-19 epidemic on TV, the web and radio, PSA’s were simply posted to Twitter by US public health organizations. And now that the vaccine is here, where is the planning, and the campaign to assure and persuade Americans we need to get it done? The CDC now says that we need 90% of the population to be vaccinated, yet 30% of the population remains reluctant, not trusting the safety and efficiency of the vaccines. So, unless money and time is spent, we may be stuck in this COVID-19 nightmare for years. Perhaps we will come to the realization, that education and public health make us safer than any tank or fighter jet. And, we will come to see ourselves as part of a greater society, and work together.