If one of your patients told you he is going to go spend a few hours hanging out in the cold this week with a bunch of people who might have coronavirus, what would your advice be? That is exactly the situation thousands of people in Wisconsin faced on April 7, as the state decided to push forward with their election despite an attempted delay by their governor in the setting of the coronavirus. In Milwaukee, a city of 600,000, thousands of voters were forced to funnel through only five polling places as the other 175 were closed due to the virus. In Green Bay, only two out of the usual 31 were open.
In a slap in the face to the medical community, the Wisconsin legislature, Wisconsin Supreme Court, and US Supreme Court all backed moving forward with the election as previously planned while simultaneously not allowing the state adequate leeway to ramp up its absentee balloting. The result is what we see today, with voters and poll workers complaining that they unnecessarily but heroically risked their lives in the interest of allowing people to have their voices heard in a democratic election. Just like in New York City, this mass congregation will translate into higher risk down the line for Wisconsin doctors, nurses, staff, and EMTs.
Where was the American Medical Association or the other major private physician or nursing organizations during this public health crisis? We’ve done a good job of issuing guidelines amongst ourselves about what we should and should not be doing in the hospital as means of saving patients, managing staff, maximizing resources, and preserving PPE. As a means of affecting public health policy, however, we have been complete failures. The AMA, ANA, and other organizations should have issued statements condemning the decision to move forward with the election in the manner it did given the 2600 confirmed coronavirus cases with 94 dead in that state alone. With more elections coming up, Wisconsin is just the tip of the iceberg, and we need to use our position as physicians and nurses to help institute plans to make our elections as open and safe as possible. To repurpose a phrase from Isaac Asimov, we know that our medical knowledge is better than their ignorance, and physicians need to and can be leaders on this issue. This is perfectly demonstrated by the public’s reaction to the current media darling Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984 and essentially the face of the current administration’s medical response to the coronavirus, is rightly getting a lot of love from both sides of the political spectrum as many Americans look to him as a leader in these troubled times, particularly when trust among many other leaders in the same administration is so polarized. You can buy an Anthony Fauci bobblehead. You can buy a shirt, socks, or even a donut with his face on it. And it’s not as if Dr. Fauci has some particularly unique oratorical gift or uncommon media savvy. He is simply an intelligent, calm, and confident physician who is putting his years of expertise to use to reassure and guide the public, and the public is listening. We all probably know or trained under a dozen doctors like him, who would all probably do a great job if put in the same situation.
In the 116th Congress, there are 14 representatives and three senators who are physicians. Of that 17, only one is a woman, and only two are not white. There are only two nurses serving in Congress. Compare these numbers to the 157 lawyers in the House and the 47 lawyers in the Senate. We can’t be leaders if our voices are not heard, and now more than ever, we need to make our voices heard.
Generations are defined by their tragedies. Pearl Harbor. JFK. 9/11. We no longer live in a post-9/11 world. We now live in a post-coronavirus world, and doctors and nurses need to become leaders in this new world. Just because you aren’t interested in politics doesn’t mean politics isn’t interested in you.
Sean Jordan is a thoracic surgeon.
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