Is Protecting Public Health Now a Partisan Issue?

Congress’s failure to deal with the Zika threat is a symptom of a bigger problem.

Congress seems to be unable to come up with funding for an effort to combat the zika virus.  Instead, congressional leaders told the government to use existing funding, so it has been forced to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from fighting ebola. (You remember that Congress was completely frenzied about the risk of ebola in 2014-15.  But Ebola is so last year.)  There are efforts to forge a compromise, but no one knows if they will succeed.

Part of what’s going on is just what is now considered the normal partisan gridlock, though in a context where it seems even crazier than usual.  The Senate is currently ready to vote on three alternatives, but the ones that seem to have the best chances of passing provide only half the funding that the government says it needs, and one of those is tied to a poison pill relating to Obamacare, which the White House probably won’t accept.  Even if Congress does eventually pass something, the delay has been damaging, since we will lose valuable time for research and preparation.

This bungling of the Zika issue seems to fit a pattern of neglect for public health.  Consider the following other recent events:

  1. A recent report by state investigators that the Flint water crisis was due to “budget cuts, decisions by state-appointed emergency manager who prized frugality over public safety, and staff members in the governor’s office who adopted a “whack a mole” attitude to beat away persistent reports of problems.”
  2. The presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party has embraced a discredited theory that vaccines cause autism, including a tweet that says “I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied. Save our children & their future.”
  3. The House leadership is pushing a bill to delay new air quality standards for ozone until 2025.  According to EPA, the standards will prevent 300-700 deaths and 230,000 asthma attacks in children every year.
  4. Speaking of the Republican nominee, he’s also said that climate science is a hoax and that he would close EPA entirely, as well as denouncing regulations that ban chemicals destroying the ozone layer from hairspray and other products.

There seems to be a bit a pattern here.  One part of it is skepticism toward science, which seems to be rampant in some parts of the GOP.  A lot has been said about that by others, so I won’t go into it here. The other part, I think, is an uneasiness with the whole concept of public health.

The term “public health” implies that we are not, after all, entirely in charge of our own individual destinies. The idea that there are some problems that are shared by everyone, and some risks that have to be dealt with collectively, sits poorly with the Ayn Randian individualism so popular on the Right.  And of course, to admit that the government can do anything important well is distasteful to the Grover Norquists of the world — recall that Norquist, a revered figure on the Right, is the one who said that he wanted to shrink government enough that he could drown it in the bathtub. I guess he wasn’t thinking about the fact that, without the government, his bathtub water would be crawling with bacteria.

When you put together an unwillingness to believe in science and a distrust in the ability of government to do anything at all, protection of public health gets to be a lot harder. Let’s hope that Congress is able to overcome these obstacles and do something about the Zika threat before it’s too late.

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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Is Protecting Public Health Now a Partisan Issue?”

  1. I like this analysis. I think there may be a lot involved in many people’s lack of sympathy for public health. Doesit make any sense to posit a kind of cultural inheritance that predisposes people to such views? I am musing at the moment over a bit from Dolin’s book on American lighthouses. In the 1700s lightning was a major hazard for lighthouses, which ought to have been solved by Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod, but installing them on lighthouses was postponed for years. Influential clergy saw the lightning rods as blasphemy, because God used lightning bolts to punish sinners. I’m thinking maybe lots of people see Zika (and things like poverty) as punishment. Perhaps Ayn Rand and barely remembered text from the Old Testament are merging in some people’s minds.

  2. Dan said;
    “…..When you put together an unwillingness to believe in science and a distrust in the ability of government to do anything at all, protection of public health gets to be a lot harder……”

    Dear Dan,
    We believe in high quality credible science and the ability of government to protect many aspects of public health. Regarding the field of climate science, we oppose incitement of fake public health problems, whereby human health effects such as death and illness are often exaggerated, distorted and misconstrued in order to advance a political agenda.

    Our Nominee stands in favor of traditional solid science, and we reject what has been referred to as “junk science” which has contaminated the discipline of climate studies and public dialog.

  3. “an unwillingness to believe in science and a distrust in the ability of government to do anything at all”

    Nothing has changed since Solon created this mess and we have been going between democracy and oligarchy ever since.

    Socrates appears to be the first to understand that democracy could never overcome belief and distrust, but there has to be a better solution than hemlock.

    So in 2016 the question remains, shall social scientists figure out how to overcome the threats of global warming, human hatreds and the power of money in time?

    1. Dan, your lack of response to our nonacademic perspectives certifies that social scientists, along with all other academics, have no solutions to the gravest threats our civilization is experiencing today.

      The fact that our politicians, republicans and democrats, continuously fail the same tests of integrity that caused Socrates to drink the hemlock, threatening democracy one more time while we act like lemmings going over a cliff.

      So, Zika is just one more threat that congress fails to deal with due to the power of money that corrupts our politicians and intellectuals to the point where time has run out due to our deranged escalation past 400 ppm, as we achieve one last failure to meet the challenges of change that Ike and the Durants warned us about.

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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