Health agencies gutted. Medical research canceled. Gun violence and pandemics dismissed. Is this how our nation is protecting us?
Nothing makes obvious the impact of lacking data better than a contagious, deadly pathogen. The tenacity of the coronavirus COVID-19 has surpassed other recent epidemics with more than 5,000 dead and 138,000 infections over 116 countries in under two months. A global, round-the-clock pursuit of containment, causes, precautions, treatment, and vaccination has kicked into overdrive.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which coordinates the international emergency response, “is working closely with global experts, governments and partners to rapidly expand scientific knowledge on this new virus,” according to its website. And Donald Trump just released his 2021 budget which proposes slashing the U.S. contribution to WHO by $65 million as well as a 34 percent cut to global health programs.
When the Senate held a roundtable discussion to address COVID-19 here in the U.S., former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said, “The whole system of public health is being left behind.” Trump officials failed to make the meeting.
At a time when Americans are sicker and die younger than most other rich nations, and a deadly pandemic is surging, the president puts forward a $2 trillion cut to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security over the next decade. And yet, he claimed, “We will always protect your Medicare and your Social Security,” in his State of the Union address on February 5.
All this is indicative of a larger public health and safety ecosystem being stripped of life-sustaining programs and mission-critical research dollars. Instead, agencies supporting national health are being pumped full of toxic misinformation and records are being destroyed in blatant violation of the law. Americans will see more preventable illness and needless death as a result.
To extend the comparison, public health is an ecology as dependent on research as land is to water. Seemingly unrelated bodies of medical study interconnect and often inform each other. When one branch of science loses its funding, the impact reaches far. Trump’s health policies are like the Bush administration’s on Viagra: dismantling, defunding, and obstructing everything we’ve done right over the last 40 years.
One example took place in June of 2019 when Health and Human Services announced it was ending federal support for any medical research that involved stem cells, which are sourced from aborted fetal tissue that would otherwise be discarded. By terminating such research in order to appeal to the anti-choice base, the Trump administration hobbles advances in Alzheimer’s, cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s, rubella, ALS, and spinal cord injuries. “Today’s action is a significant pro-life victory,” Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) said in what can only be described as an ironic statement. According to scientists, there is no replacement methodology for stem cell research.
Real science is making progress in HIV and cancer. Initial studies on cannabis for treating chronic pain and seizures are very promising. A critical research project is exploring the effects of chemicals on pregnant women. All these areas of study have had their funding ripped away, being replaced with fake science, as people continue to die senselessly.
Last year saw the highest number of mass shootings since 2014, with 417 deaths in a single year. Trump has blamed the mass shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and El Paso, Texas, on mental illness and video games. So rather than study the root causes of these clusters of homicides that are often followed by suicides, Trump has further vilified mental illness, even suggesting we should bring back institutions.
Neither video games or mental illness are predictors or directly linked to these tragedies, but mass shootings have increased dramatically, especially over the last five years. A bi-partisan vote at the end of 2019 passed legislation that will allocate $25 million to studying gun violence after a 20-year dearth of research. There are several factors at play in the growing numbers of these domestic terror incidents, but imagine how much loss of life could have been prevented if the Dickey Amendment hadn’t frozen spending on gun study for two decades.
Arguably, an even greater threat to public safety is the dismantling and overhauling of the EPA, which oversaw historic reductions in respiratory diseases and consumer illnesses since its inception under President Nixon. In Trump’s first year with Scott Pruitt at the helm, the EPA saw a mass mutiny of 700 employees, many of them scientists and experts, when entire programs got shut down and words like “climate change” were scrubbed from the EPA website. Some scientists fled the U.S. system altogether, courted by other countries, while outrage at this widespread scientific obstruction pushed a record number of scientists to run for office in 2018.
The latest appointee as the chief of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal lobbyist who has rolled back regulations on coal, mercury, ozone, methane, fuel efficiency, and water pollution. “Pollution is on the decline,” Wheeler said at one of Trump’s recent speeches.
When research flags and regulations soften, there is nothing holding heavy industry accountable, no proof that dumping toxins into the water and air makes people ill. That’s how dozens of petrochemical corporations whose plants line the Mississippi can continue to blame genetics and lifestyle on Louisiana’s cancer rates, which are the highest in the country.
While it would be convenient to blame Trump for all our healthcare and public safety woes, medical research dollars started dwindling before he became our collective problem. According to the Journal of American Medical Association, “U.S. government research funding declined from 57 percent (2004) to 50 percent (2012) of the global total, as did that of U.S. companies (50 percent to 41 percent), with the total U.S. (public plus private) share of global research funding declining from 57 percent to 44 percent.”
That’s an astounding drop for the richest country in the world in the middle of a multi-faceted healthcare crisis. We’re facing record overdose deaths, unprecedented childhood obesity and diabetes rates, and the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the industrialized world.
Perhaps one of Trump’s biggest lies is his recent proclamation to the kingdom that he was the guy who saved the pre-existing conditions clause in the Affordable Care Act. That’s a shocking claim considering his administration is currently doing everything it can to overturn Obamacare in the courts. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Trump’s removal of the individual mandate, which applied a tax penalty to income-eligible people for not having insurance, would see a decrease in enrollment between 3 to 6 million Americans by 2021.
If the GOP succeeds, it will be particularly grim for women. John McDonough, from Harvard Chan School of Public Health, who worked in the Senate on the passage of the ACA points out, “Republicans want to return all discretion over required benefits to states, including the ACA’s mandates on benefits such as birth control, mammography, prescription drugs, behavioral health, and much more. So it’s possible that women could lose coverage for services that are currently free, such as contraception, mammograms, folic acid supplements during pregnancy, and screenings for gestational diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, and cervical cancer.”
These are all classic plays pulled straight out of the despot playbook: destroy the systems that supply basic human rights to the most vulnerable, in this case, low-income women, children, people of color, and the elderly. Then convince the public that the facts are not the facts. It’s part of a general silencing, obfuscation, and intimidation campaign meant to discourage investigation—the hallmark tactic of fascism. When your government is deliberately trouncing civil rights and restricting the flow of information, that’s not simply disorganization, that’s orchestrated chaos designed to control.
These choices will make an already ill, at-risk population even sicker and less safe. Lacking facts on a rapidly changing population in a rapidly changing climate will only compound the state of emergency. Our corporate-influenced leadership has found a very effective way to monetize suffering, but it will be short-lived if it continues.
The one silver lining on this otherwise very dark cloud is that in the 2020 election, healthcare and climate change will be central issues. Over 50 percent of the population still sees Obamacare in a favorable light, and Trump’s attempts to dismantle it will likely be a make-or-break issue for centrists on both sides. Similarly, recent disasters that have been clearly linked to the climate crisis and the uptick in school shootings have mobilized young voters, who will outnumber boomers for the first time in this upcoming cycle. They will have to turn out en masse, because nowhere is this war against truth being waged fiercer than on the re-election campaign.
A broken, sick public is a public easily manipulated. This multi-tiered disinformation campaign is diabolical, a genuine return to the dark ages ideologically, but super-charged with more sophisticated technological means. It all raises the question again: Once the contagion is set loose on the populace, how do we stop it?
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