Public health is political. Disasters are political. These are truisms that those of us in the emergency management and public health preparedness spaces know well, even if we’re rarely engaging in political activities.
With COVID-19, a public health emergency of unprecedented scale for the modern era, we’re seeing a compounding of the politics of public health and the politics of disaster preparedness and response in the media and public discourse. That is to say, the politics of the response are receiving significant coverage and attention, sometimes more than the information the public needs — like the basics of the outbreak, how to detect symptoms, who to call if you don’t have a primary care physician, for example.
It’s important to hold leadership accountable and scrutinize plans and actions taken (or not taken) to protect the public, but in the midst of a response, we have to focus on protecting all of us. The time for reflection and analysis will come later.
It’s also important to recognize that this focus on the politics of the response is drowning out other important conversations we should be having. One of which is that, across the country, communities are living out the consequences of diminishing investments in public health and disaster readiness.
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State and local health departments that have faced consistent cuts in federal funding are on the frontlines for this response and sharply under-resourced. Similarly, federal funding for hospital and health care preparedness has faced steep cuts.
The COVID-19 outbreak, as an event impacting all 50 states and all territories, is distinct for that reason: We’re seeing that all communities need to respond at once. Everyone is strained, at the same time.
This reality is serving to underscore that we cannot afford (literally) for support for public health and other emergencies to be a partisan issue, or to change from administration to administration. This will be especially important going forward as emergency events impacting health care and public health are increasing in frequency and intensity, and our health care system is fragmented and incredibly complex to begin with.
There’s a dichotomy that exists in the context of disasters and public health emergencies like COVID-19. All parties desire the same end state, more or less. Our shared goal is for as many people, as many businesses, as many hospitals, schools and grocery stores as possible to be protected from the crisis, regardless of the type. We disagree on how to achieve that end state, though.
On the public health side, disagreements emerge over the evidence and science that the field presents. Perceptions of the strength of that evidence, who will be affected by it, and who is responsible for acting on it means it becomes political as these perceptions shape government response. On the disaster response and emergency management side, politics and partisanship emerge for similar reasons but also because emergencies are managed by government, at the local, state or federal level, depending on the scale of the event.
This end-state consensus is hardly the case in almost any other issue or field in today’s hyperpolarized, politicized society. The magnitude of the response to COVID-19 is highlighting the latent bipartisanship of disaster and public health emergency preparedness and response. While it’s taken too long to get there, we’ve started to see bipartisan efforts in the passage of the supplemental funding and relief bills.
But we can’t only be on the same page or bipartisan on catastrophic events like this. We need to take the early lessons learned from this response and create or support more sustainable, better resourced bipartisan initiatives in this space. The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense is an excellent example of an organization that helps our crisis system navigate bipartisanship.
The months ahead are going to be immeasurably trying and challenging. But the norm at the heart of emergency responses is crystalizing and becoming more visible every day — and that is that we, as a society and as emergency managers, all want the same things.
We’re on the same team. Throughout this response and looking to the years ahead, it’s important that we remember this and harness it during our most challenging periods.
Sarah Baker is programs director at Healthcare Ready.
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