Thistlethwaite: Disease and politics
Wash your hands frequently because a threatened global pandemic has run headlong into the Trump administration’s grossly underfunded public health system in a presidential election season.
Elizabeth Warren, alone among the Democratic presidential candidates, released a plan in January of this year for combating the spread of the global pandemic, and it can be summed up as “Fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health.”
Seems obvious, doesn’t it?
But instead, billions have been or are scheduled to be cut or diverted away from the CDC and National Institutes of Health in the Trump years, some to fund the tax cuts and some to fund “border security.” This follows diversions of some of this funding in 2012 by President Obama to make up for cuts to Medicare physician payments.
Warnings have been sounded for years of how risky this trajectory is for Americans. Dr. Tom Frieden, former head of the CDC, in 2017, in reaction to the Trump administration’s proposed $1.2 billion in cuts to the CDC budget. Frieden tweeted: “Proposed CDC budget: unsafe at any level of enactment. Would increase illness, death, risks to Americans, and health care costs.”
And yet, chronic underfunding has been the norm. This has now resulted in Dr. Frieden’s prediction of “risks to Americans” being realized. That’s you and me, and my children and grandchildren, and yours, as well, of course, our global neighbors and visitors.
Get the politics out of it. Fund the coronavirus response at levels recommended by scientific experts such as those at the CDC.
But that’s not what’s happening now. This administration’s “too little, too late” response to the growing global spread of the disease is to take money away from the Ebola preparedness account ($535 million), raid other HHS accounts and only request $1.2 billion in new money.
This is unacceptable. Even Wall Street knows this is unacceptable.
Worst of all, it is dangerous and an election season makes that even worse. The politicization of disease always makes the disease worst, and the politics become ever more ugly.
Let me say, as a case in point, the idea of cuts to Ebola prevention to fund a coronavirus response is completely idiotic. And it is “déjà vu all over again,” like Yogi Berra) said, since the original response to Ebola was hampered by cuts to the federal budget for research. This resulted in political mud wrestling in an election season, as Dr. Francis Collins of the NIH found when he simply tried to point out that actual fact. He and the NIH were pilloried by conservatives. Dr. Collins’s point, however, was valid. Without those cuts, there could have been an Ebola vaccine.
Stereotypes of Ebola as a “black disease” also clearly increased the idiocy of global, politically driven responses.
Homophobia retarded the correct scientific identification of HIV/AIDS. In 1982, a group of cases among gay men in Southern California suggested that the cause of the immune deficiency was sexual and the syndrome was initially called gay-related immune deficiency (GRID). One gay San Francisco official recalls, “They called it the gay cancer, that it was deserved because of the perversion involved.”
The Reagan Administration, as is now well known, looked the other way during the height of the AIDS crisis and tragically this dreadful disease received almost no priority for many years leading to many deaths.
Even the new name given to the coronavirus, COVID-19 (short for Coronavirus 2019), by the World Health Organization, shows the politics of disease. WHO gave it a name “that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease,” said Dr .Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO. Appropriately, WHO does not want to evoke prejudice against either the Chinese or snakes (one possible animal from which the virus could have come).
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, has said Democrats in Congress will move forward on their own budget plans for dealing with the crisis “adequately.”
That’s good on the face of it, but wrangles over appropriations can easily bog down, wasting time we do not have. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said Tuesday in a briefing that it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” the new coronavirus will spread in the U.S.
Trump tweeted on Monday that “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
As of this writing, the Dow has dropped nearly 2,000 points. Clearly Wall Street analysts don’t believe Trump’s tweet and I don’t either.
Wash your hands. Get an appropriate face mask if you feel you need one (and can obtain it), but don’t bother with those loose weave ones. They are worse than nothing as they delude people into thinking they are protected.
Above all, call the White House, call your senator and representative and demand the levels of funding scientific experts think will be adequate to meet the challenge of this disease.
Call them right now.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.