Bridging the Divide: How to Make Sense of America’s Disregard for Public Health

Science and healthcare shouldn’t be political in nature, but we live in a divided country. This week’s elections results show a clear division between liberal and conservative Americans. For many public health experts, science was on the ballot – and it didn’t do as well as some had hoped. Some are calling this year’s election an outright rejection of public health as we know it.

We’re still waiting for the final results, and it should come as no joke that President Trump has some pulling power. Over 67 million people voted for him, despite his looser viewpoints on the pandemic. Meanwhile, government leaders, epidemiologists, and public health experts have received death threats for trying to curb the spread of the virus by imposing lockdowns and limits on social gatherings.

Regardless of how you feel about politics, around half of the country appears to have rejected key health principles. So, how do we rebuild trust and continue to care for those who don’t agree with the latest scientific evidence?

What We Learned from the Election

Looking at preliminary exit polls, around 14% of Republican voters said the coronavirus epidemic was a deciding factor in their votes. Polling data also shows that large majorities of Democrats tend to be in favor of a more robust public health response to the crisis, while Republicans have been much more likely to oppose such measures.

However, the virus has already killed over 230,000 Americans. Over 100,000 just tested positive in a single day, which means the virus isn’t going away anytime soon.

While public health experts continue sounding the alarm on the deadly pandemic, their message is often met with political backlash.

Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, says public health experts shouldn’t deserve the blame for their message falling on deaf ears. Now that the results are mostly in, however, he says, “We’re going to have to do some serious soul searching.” He believes doctors and public health officials can “play a big role in making sure that we come up with ways to deal with this in the future.”

However, Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of Science magazine and other industry-related journals, was less optimistic. “If there was a way to fix it, we would have done it,” he said. “Science was on the ballot and this means that a significant portion of America doesn’t want science…Science is now something for a subset of America.”

Acknowledging the Problem

With so many people on opposite sides of the political aisle, providers and educators should start by recognizing the differences in their patients’ beliefs.

Lindsey Leininger, a public health educator and clinical professor at Dartmouth College, says “We have a huge gaping hole in our cultural intelligence and I think that that is really important for us to recognize and embrace,” she said. “We need to know that this is a blind spot, and we need to partner with people who believe in the science and have credibility in conservative circles.”

Instead of telling someone what to do, the healthcare community should work with individuals who may be skeptical of these ideas if they want to keep them safe from the coronavirus.

Glen Nowak, a longtime communicator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now the head of the University of Georgia’s Center for Health and Risk Communication, says: 

“The approach often used is, ‘We just need to tell people who have those beliefs that they’re wrong.’ Maybe not that directly, but in other ways. Maybe what we need to do is invest in listening to their concerns, and understanding their perspectives, before we start giving them our messages.”

When confronted with someone with ideas other than your own, try listening before offering your opinion. As Georges Benjamin puts it, “Take it seriously. Sit down and talk to folks and say: Hey, we want to stop the spread of this disease, what are your ideas?”

However, providers should also choose their battles wisely, so they don’t waste their time trying to convince someone to be safe when they are using the virus as a wedge.

Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health, says it’s best to target individuals who appear to be willing to listen. “You give people the benefit of the doubt as long as you can,” he said. “You see where you can engage…you don’t waste your time on the trolls or the ones who see public health as a punching bag for a larger political debate.”

Dozens of top public health officials have resigned from the posts in recent months due to the political and personal backlash against their claims. Navigating a pandemic in a country where so many people don’t believe in the seriousness of the virus will continue to be a challenge, regardless of who wins the presidency.

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