Tag Archives: public health

Compartmentalized Thinking Can Kill

Readers of this blog know that I am an enthusiastic supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU primarily uses the legal system to protect everyone’s rights, sometimes in unpopular causes. ACLU recognizes the difficult truth that if one person’s rights can be taken away, then all peoples’ rights can be taken.

Compartmentalized thinking is one of the ways we are able to look away from wrongs – it’s “them,” not “us;” “I can’t afford to get involved so I won’t think about it;” and “maybe I’ll engage later/contribute later/pay attention later, but right now I have other important things on my mind.” And many other examples. Such thinking also enables our ability to block out unpleasant thoughts and to resist the inexorable logic of exponential growth.

Compartmentalized thinking also enables us to support abstract ideas that block our awareness of the interconnectedness of events and the forces that shape our society. I read a piece from ACLU that delivered this point with unexpected force today. https://bit.ly/2wz18oq

ACLU reports that “A group of over 450 public health experts signed a public letter today warning that widespread transmission of the Covid-19 coronavirus within the United States is “inevitable.” Their letter urges government decisionmakers to enact policies that will have the best chance of minimizing the effects of the virus: those based strictly on the best available scientific information, and those that are imposed in a fair and equitable fashion.”

Some will react to this with “uh oh, here they go again, worrying about peoples’ rights when we should be focused on survival.” That is, perhaps, an understandable response, but read on.

ACLU acknowledges that sometimes individual rights must yield to the “greater good.” However,

The public health experts remind us in their letter that there is a flip side to the limits on liberty …. Just as a disease cares little for our notions of individualism … neither does it care about other artifacts of our individualistic society, such as differences in wealth, status, ethnicity, or immigration status. If the authorities want to be effective in limiting the transmission of this virus, they will need to pay particular attention to the most vulnerable people in our society.

A disease does not care who has health insurance, for example. You may have the best insurance in the world, but if 30 million others who are part of your bio-mass are not getting tested or treated because they lack insurance, that will increase your risk. Similarly, if members of immigrant communities fear they’re going to fall into the hands of an ICE officer if they seek treatment, that is a public health problem for all of us. A disease does not care who is undocumented.

In their letter, the public health experts call for officials to work with insurance companies to make sure that lack of insurance and high costs do not become a barrier to testing and treatment. They call for health care facilities to be declared as “immigration enforcement-free zones” — a step that has been taken before during hurricanes and other emergencies….

The experts draw attention to the need to support minimum-wage workers and others who live on the economic margins, cannot telecommute, and cannot afford to lose their job. While an office worker who is starting to feel ill may be able to self-isolate, someone in a more precarious situation may calculate the different risks they face in their life and conclude their only option is to hide their condition and head to work. A disease does not care whose employers offer good sick leave.

Finally, “Political leaders need to scrupulously ensure that their public messages are accurate and guided by science. There is a sad history of responses to emergencies that are hindered by politics,” citing  China’s response to SARS as well as coronavirus and the Soviet government’s response to Chernobyl.

Finally, the experts echo some of the longstanding lessons of their field: Voluntary self-isolation measures are more likely to induce cooperation — and therefore be effective — than coercive measures. Mandatory restrictions such as quarantines and travel bans “can be effective only under specific circumstances” and “must be guided by science, with appropriate protection of the rights of those impacted.” Those rights include due process rights to appeal confinement and the right to legal counsel. While leaders in outbreaks can be tempted to impose draconian measures as a show of strength, the letter’s signers also remind us that a disease also does not care how tough a leader looks.

The record of the Trump administration, and the President’s repeated comments contradicting the advice of health experts, do not align well with ACLU’s insightful analysis. This has led to numerous mistakes in the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Everyone needs to recognize that just about everything is now connected to just about everything. If society now turns its back on the problems faced by the uninsured and others who are under enormous pressure to survive, we will all pay a dear price. We’re all in this together, like it or not.

Final Note:  Please consider making a contribution to the ACLU. It is fighting for each of us on multiple fronts and needs financial support to continue being an effective force for truth and justice for everyone.