In the past year, the United States has faced compounding challenges as it struggled to control the COVID-19 pandemic and grappled with significant civil unrest. The American pandemic response has been primarily determined by the guidance—or lack thereof—of elected officials and enacted policies at the local, state, and federal levels. Now, with the development of vaccines to combat COVID-19, the interconnectedness of civic health and public health is increasingly clear. Mass vaccination campaigns require elected officials to assist with developing and executing plans to vaccinate their constituents. Moreover, vaccination and civic engagement operate in parallel and rely on Americans’ active participation to ultimately create a healthier and more representative democracy.
Both vaccination and civic engagement offer vital protections at the population level. While civic engagement protects individuals from policies that oppose their interests, vaccination protects individuals from disease and—in most cases—limits disease transmission to others. These processes overlap in large-scale efforts, including the COVID-19 mass vaccination campaign. Voting in elections at the local, state, and federal levels directly impacts policies that dictate vaccines’ availability and distribution. The United States relies on widespread civic engagement and coordinated public health measures to equitably and effectively safeguard the population. While the COVID-19 vaccine provides hope in the midst of the pandemic, voting injects hope and strength into our democracy.
Furthermore, vaccines and civic engagement achieve maximum efficacy when the majority of society participates. Herd immunity, a term typically applied to vaccination efforts, implies that an entire population is protected when the majority of the population achieves immunity. This concept can be easily transferred and applied to voting. When the majority of citizens vote, there is a higher likelihood that groups from all socioeconomic statuses, age groups, genders, and cultural backgrounds will be represented in government. The only way democracy can reflect the will of the people is when voter turnout demographics match the demographics of the country. In the same way, vaccination efforts are most successful when a large percentage of a population is vaccinated, effectively protecting even the most vulnerable members of the population. High rates of voter turnout and high rates of vaccination boost the efficacy of these respective processes.
Health care providers are uniquely positioned to engage with their patients and communities in vaccination and voter engagement efforts. Across the country, thousands of providers have empowered their patients to vote by wearing badges from nonpartisan organizations. These badges provide patients with a QR code that connects them with nonpartisan civic engagement resources. However, it is important to note that engagement is not complete without addressing apprehension surrounding civic and public health campaigns. Health care providers must acknowledge how systemic racism and the mistreatment of vulnerable populations have led to mistrust in both the health care system and the American democratic process. Building and restoring trust in these systems starts with listening to and actively addressing individual concerns.
As the United States continues to respond to the extraordinary challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative to address and reassess ways that all Americans can play a role in fostering a healthy democracy. We cannot become complacent and limit our participation to only presidential elections or a single vaccination campaign. Health care providers and clinical settings have the opportunity to be at the crux of both issues, ultimately advancing the health of our country and promoting greater democratic participation. Health and democracy do not operate in separate silos—and neither should vaccination and civic engagement.
Nicole Blum is a medical student.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com