We haven’t even finished burying the bodies yet and politicians have already shifted into full finger-pointing and scapegoating mode.
If that weren’t bad enough, the wrathful pettiness is aimed at public health officials and agencies, the ones doing yeoman’s work tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. President Donald Trump, in a transparent attempt to detract from his own failings, has lashed out at Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and at the World Health Organization.
In Canada, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney have mimicked the criticism of the WHO and taken pot shots at Theresa Tam, the country’s Chief Public Health Officer.
It is dangerously inappropriate to kneecap public health officials and agencies at a time when a pandemic is racing around the world – two million infections, 135,000 deaths and counting – and maintaining public trust is essential.
The recriminations can wait.
The common thread in the attacks seems to be a belief that public health officials are all pawns of the People’s Republic of China, and that said evil empire has been lying to us about coronavirus since day one.
For Mr. Trump, the pandemic response serves a convenient excuse to cut off funding to the WHO, another expression for his jingoistic hatred of all things international (read: un-American).
In addition, his maniacal need for sycophancy has put Dr. Fauci, who dared correct the President’s statements with actual facts, into the crosshairs. Not to mention Mr. Trump’s pathological inability to admit his mistakes.
The motivation of Canadian conservative politicians is a little less clear, but appears to be driven by a mix of ideological dislike for communism and bureaucracy, with a dash of partisanship thrown in for good measure.
Elected officials can take whatever positions they like. Some of their complaints, such as the lack of transparency about coronavirus cases and deaths in China, are valid.
But if they are angry at China, take it out on China.
What is not acceptable is shifting blame to public health leaders, such as Dr. Fauci, Dr. Tam and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO.
If you want officials and the organizations they represent to take responsibility, then you also have to give them the power to act.
The WHO has 7,000 employees and a budget of US$4.4-billion, but it has no real power other than to make recommendations, and timidity is built into its structure.
Was the WHO too accepting of what China told it about the spread of coronavirus, and the lack of human-to-human and asymptomatic transmission? In retrospect, perhaps. But even Mr. Trump was praising China a couple of months ago.
The debacle taking place in the U.S. right now is the fault of no one but the U.S.
At a time when other countries were imposing severe public health restrictions, Mr. Trump insisted that “everything is under control” and said the virus was “going to disappear.” Sure, he imposed a (partial) travel ban before many other countries (so did Italy), but there’s not a lot of evidence it made much of a difference. It also showed he didn’t much care for the WHO’s advice.
The principal criticism of Dr. Tam is that she followed the recommendations of the WHO. Let’s see, Canada’s top public health official took direction from the world’s leading public health agency. How is that in any way outrageous?
Dr. Tam also – gasp, horror! - changed her mind. As evidence of the pandemic’s severity changed, so did her recommendations on border-control measures and mask-wearing. Good. Public policy is supposed to adapt to changing circumstances.
Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea all acted swiftly and vigorously – with mass testing and strict physical-distancing measures. So why didn’t Canada?
Presumably for the same reason that about 200 other countries in the world did not: trying to find a balance between what should be done and what was politically palatable.
The job of public health is to tell people things they don’t want to hear. They are, alternately, accused of over-reacting and under-reacting.
From the WHO to local officials, the role of public health is to advise and offer up options. Politicians can accept (or reject) the advice and decide how to act.
Ultimately, it’s politicians who are accountable. No leader worth their salt blames underlings for their own failings.
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