Abraar Karan: Politics and public health in America—taking a stand for what is right

Doctors, scientists, and public health leaders are increasingly stepping into the fray and getting political, writes Abraar Karan

The world is watching America. 

We are living in a time when our government is run by a demagogue and our scientific, medical, and public health institutions are trying to desperately stay afloat long enough to survive with any shred of credibility or global respect. 

This week, the New England Journal of Medicine took a stance unprecedented in their history—they openly sided on a presidential election, calling truth “neither liberal nor conservative,” and labeled our current political leaders as “dangerously incompetent.” The journal joins Scientific American, which endorsed Joe Biden for president, the first time in their 175 year history of backing a candidate.

Also this week, William Foege, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American public health legend, wrote a letter to the current CDC director Robert Redfield, which was released to the public by USA Today. In it, he says that the covid-19 response in the US will go down as a “colossal failure of the public health system of this country.” He calls for Redfield to stand up to the administration, even if that means getting fired, so that his legacy won’t be one in which he was a “servant to a corrupt president.”

What we are seeing unfold now is an attempt by many medical and public health leaders to step in to avoid an impending crisis—namely, the re-election of the Trump administration. Doctors, scientists, and public health leaders are taking hard stances against current American political leadership in an effort to protect their professions and their people. 

As a physician who has both cared for numerous patients with covid-19, as well as worked on a state level covid-19 epidemic response, of which much ends up being political, I know that there is no talking about health without talking politics, and vice versa. When I see patients, I do so knowing in my heart that many of them wouldn’t be there if not for our failed response to this epidemic. This is personal.

Every attempt now by the Trump administration to take credit for covid-19 “cures,” or to downplay the virus, is a reminder why their dangerous incompetence has no place in the White House. It bears repeating: we are trying to control this outbreak in spite of an anti-science, xenophobic political party, not because of it.

The recent covid-19 outbreak in the White House is a fitting, albeit unfortunate, culmination of what has been a reckless endangerment of public health for months. Trump and his colleagues rejected and continue to reject the fundamental pillars of how to control the virus: no masks, no quarantining, no isolation, no contact tracing, close indoor activity, inconsistent testing, and a destruction of public trust, just to name a few. They are joined by other populist leaders with failed responses—including the UK’s Boris Johnson—as detailed in a recent editorial in The BMJ.

As medical professionals, what we do now at this very moment will have a major impact on the trajectory of this pandemic. How we leverage our credibility and commitment to science to counter dangerous threats to the health of our communities, even if those threats are within our own borders, right on our Twitter feeds or TV screens or voting ballots, will define the health of generations to come. And ultimately, the situation we are faced with now is beyond the politics of left and right—it is about doing what is right, when there is little time left.

Abraar Karan is an internal medicine physician at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School and a columnist at The BMJ. He previously worked on the covid-19 response in Massachusetts state. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of his employers. Twitter @AbraarKaran

Competing interests: None declared.