As the presidential election draws closer, the context of the pandemic has made this year’s vote particularly decisive.
In recent presidential debates, candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump have diverged with respect to federal responses to the virus. While Trump has defended a quick “return to normalcy,” Biden is a proponent of measures that center around public health guidelines. As the nation also remains divided, the News spoke with Yale experts about what is at stake in this election with regard to the pandemic.
“There are many ways in which the choice between the two candidates is consequential, but the factor that will most deeply influence everything else is the decisive one of truth,” Frank Snowden, Andrew Downey Orrick Professor Emeritus of History & History of Medicine, wrote in an email to the News.
Snowden explained that the effectiveness of public health strategies is often contingent upon reliability, appropriate timing and transparency. To him, it is only with these principles in mind that coherent policies can be put together while earning the population’s trust.
But according to Snowden, the fact Trump is the “first post-truth American President” has seeded harmful consequences throughout the pandemic, including “denial, obfuscation, and the transformation of a medical crisis into a calamity of immense carnage that was at least partly preventable.”
In an email to the News, Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, wrote that he believes that political leadership in Washington has failed to handle the pandemic in more ways than one.
“President Trump has made an explicit decision to downplay the epidemic, has refused to scale-up basic public health measures such as mask wearing and community testing for SARS-COV-2 and simply thinks the virus will go away on its own,” Gonsalves wrote.
Gonsalves attributes a significant share of the responsibility for the pandemic to Trump’s “ludicrous and dangerous” policies. According to him, should Trump be reelected, “we can expect the pandemic to keep ravaging our communities through the rest of 2021 into 2022.”
In the beginning of October, Scientific American — a scientific publication that has not expressed a public stance in an election in its 175-year history — announced its support for Biden in an unprecedented endorsement of a presidential candidate. Other publications, including the New England Journal of Medicine and Nature, have since made political statements of their own.
Although the New England Journal of Medicine editorial did not explicitly name Biden as their preferred candidate, their striking condemnation of the Trump administration as “dangerously incompetent” left little room for interpretation.
“The editors of the New England Journal of Medicine said it very clearly, if anybody else would’ve caused so much damage, they would’ve gone to trial,” said Naftali Kaminski, Yale New Haven Health chief of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine. “Electing the current regime would be like allowing a drunk driver on the road immediately after he killed somebody.”
Julie Rosenbaum, chief of internal medicine and acute care at Yale Health, told the News that it has been frustrating to see health care systems around the country once again become overwhelmed in ways similar to what was observed in the spring.
She emphasized that while health care is a frequent topic of discussion in politics, this year has seen the undermining of science itself from certain parts of the population.
“The fact that even whether you’re going to wear a mask has become a contentious issue when literally it clearly has been shown to reduce harm to yourself and others is astounding and incredibly frustrating,” Rosenbaum said.
Rosenbaum also recognized that deep-seated social and racial inequities are still prevalent in the United States and generate disparities in case distribution. According to her, it is going to take renewed commitment from the government to begin to remedy that. She emphasized that there have been “unnecessary illness and deaths” that could have been avoided if the government had put together a “coordinated response.”
Kaminski added that he fears that, under Trump and without a vaccine, the country could face the implementation of a “herd immunity policy,” which would kill thousands of Americans. He also said that people who run for office should be able to communicate clearly with the public, as well as implement policies that are not dictated by partisan politics but instead protect the health of citizens.
“If the current regime continues its disregard of science and actually its cavalier attitude towards the life of its citizens, the impact could be disastrous, as government response to natural and environmental challenges is critically important,” Kaminski said.
Gonsalves wrote that if Biden becomes president, not only will he be tasked with reorganizing the country’s pandemic response, but also with providing economic and social relief for the millions of Americans left reeling by the prolonged crisis.
According to Snowden, although Biden’s election alone would not instantly reverse the damage that has been done, he thinks that it could usher in a necessary period of change.
“It will take time for a new administration to address the wreckage, to elaborate and adequately fund a coherent national policy, and to restore the broken trust between the people and the authorities,” Snowden wrote. “But [Biden’s] inauguration would mark a transformative moment when healing and the application of a scientific strategy of public health could begin.”
Chair of the Yale School of Public Health Department of Epidemiology Albert Ko said that regardless of who wins the election, good governance and a cohesive federal response to the pandemic will be crucial to protect the health and safety of people across the country.
“We have now a serious problem in the United States,” Ko said. “We have a fragmented approach to public health where each state is just going off their own ways. It’s just complete chaos. And part of that is the undermining of typically strong institutions like the CDC.”
Ko said that even if a state like Connecticut were to take a more focused approach to limiting the spread of the virus, if places like Florida and Texas do not uniformly and effectively implement public health guidelines, everyone will be affected.
He also emphasized that the entire country is in this fight together against COVID-19, regardless of state lines, due to the highly infectious nature of the virus. Echoing this sentiment, Gonsalves wrote that “fighting COVID-19 as one nation is the only way to defeat the virus.”
As of Oct. 26, the CDC estimates that the total number of COVID-19 fatalities in the United States will be between 243,000 and 256,000 by Nov. 21.
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