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My DukeEngage couldn’t have come at a more relevant time. Public health? In the middle of a pandemic? I wanted something real, something that would give me insight into current events, and I got exactly that. I’m not working on the front lines, doing contact tracing, or administering tests, but working with my local public health department has given me an interesting look into the health-guided infrastructure that goes into our daily lives.
In ordinary times, public health has an important role that people don’t realize. This department is the one that funds the bike trails, the one that coordinates the produce stands, the one that helps expecting moms connect to resources they need. However, it’s often neglected and ignored: underfunded by the state, scoffed at by citizens who make fun of healthy eating options or anti-vaping presentations. The global pandemic has done nothing but exacerbate the friction between the intentions of a public health department and the opinions of its citizens. News channels have picked up on this; broadcasts and newspapers are full of stories of people rebelling against or calling out their local health authorities for the decisions they make regarding mask usage, re-opening policies, and other types of pandemic measures.
A relevant article on this topic was printed in the New York Times, titled Health Officials Had to Face a Pandemic. Then Came the Death Threats. It talks about exactly what the title describes: how several notable state and local public health directors have stepped down from their positions, stating claims of retirement or repositioning, but mostly one cause: the verbal and physical retaliation by citizens due to their department’s COVID-19 decisions and regulations. The article tells the personal account of some targeted directors, who give quotes on the abuse they’ve suffered and their reactions.
This article was an interesting read. It brings to light a very serious problem: the public distrust of health authorities and health-related legislation.n It is praising of the directors, while condemning of the protesters who ran them out of their jobs. The piece is quite descriptive of the hate-filed remarks directed at the officials. It describes protests at their homes, slurs directed at them on facebook, and even death threats during their public conferences. However, while the piece goes into detail on the public demonstration of the people’s ideals, it fails to give them a name or a voice through quotes or an interview. Does outrightly hateful, willfully ignorant speech have a place in the NYT? Not in itself, but including a quote from those who have added to the backlash would give the reader more perspective on why individuals in these communities are so opposed to the restrictions that officials have put in place. The article includes a quote from a video, but not from an question-directed interview, which may be more helpful in understanding why citizens have taken such strong actions against public health officials.
This article has personal implications to me, as I am a resident of Ohio, where Dr. Amy Acton has recently stepped down from her position as Director of State Public Health. To me and the relatives with whom i have discussed Acton, she was a beacon of hope that our state would be one of better ones; that having a nationally-lauded public health director who has talents in public speaking and justification of her measures would lead to a great communal understanding of what needs to happen during a pandemic. However, I was wrong– in my right-leaning community, Acton’s actions have become politicized. I have heard from many a Lorain Citizen that her advice is apparently demonstrating of “ the typical weak democrat” trying to bring in greater government control– even though she has no legislative power, and any implemented action must first be approved and put into place by staunchly-republican Governor Mike Dewine. I’ve listened to Acton’s broadcasts, and am constantly in awe of her skills with explaining complex health-related research to a wide audience. Such admiration, however, has led to stunning disappointment in both my state and society as a whole. Why do people who have absolutely no higher education in anything health related find it so easy to bash medical advice? Why does the fact that Acton’s power is checked by Dewine have no effect on the protester’s decision to end her death threats and march outside her house? In fact– why haven’t they targeted him, the man who is actually carrying out policy? The entire situation breeds disillusionment in the power of higher education, public respect for other citizens, and the efficacy of any public organization. I can’t help but wonder– does this type of dismissal of public health material extend to the work I’m doing? Also– the thought is always there– did Acton receive as much hate as she did because she’s a woman in a place of power? I am constantly working to address such questions and doubts within myself, and seeing them plate out on a statewide scale is powerful.
Despite the bad news, there is always some good. Thanks to Acton’s actions, Ohio had one of the strongest, most effective initial coronavirus responses. Also, Acton has taken up a new position that retains much of her old job’s influence; she has become Dewine’s health advisor. This, in combination with the fact that other public health officials are also continuing on their respective fights to help our communities with this pandemic, is reassuring. Are all the decisions they make necessarily correct? Of course not, but in the end, we are left with a leader and an educated role model.