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The Politicizing of COVID-19: A Public Sector Response

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Vanessa Lopez-Littleton
January 9, 2022

In the United States, the public sector’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a source of major criticism. The politicizing of COVID-19 has resulted in ongoing confusion around the vaccine, treatments, public health and even science. It has also contributed to some degree of risk experienced by Americans. The following reflections, by panelists from ASPA San Francisco Bay Area Chapter’s recent webinar, are offered to fuel discourse around the politicizing of COVID-19.

Wendy Root Askew, Supervisor, District 4, Monterey County, CA

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted pre-existing societal disparities and forced local communities to reckon with the reality that our health is interdependent with the well-being of our neighbors. COVID-19 challenged us to consider the disparate realities faced by people of different gender expressions, races, family responsibilities, and socio-economic circumstances. While some were spared the tragic health effects of COVID-19, the pandemic affected everyone. Oftentimes, public policies failed to center the needs of those who were most socially and economically vulnerable. Moving forward we must recommit to efforts that ensure public administration across all fields–including elected leadership–represents the diversity and lived experience of everyone, not just those who have the privilege of time and resources to participate.

Richard Greggory Johnson III, Professor, University of San Francisco

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a force unseen in many decades. It reminds me of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Both pandemics resulted in an incomprehensible loss of life. It took President Reagan nearly four years to publicly acknowledge HIV/AIDS after it was first identified in 1981. The same can be said for COVID-19, in which President Trump also failed to act in a timely manner. To some degree, these pandemics were spurred on by the failure of swift public policy actions. The history books will not be kind regarding governmental responses to these pandemics, nor should they be.

Jose Irizarry, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois, Springfield

We are living in a polarized environment because practices stemming from notions of neutrality and blindness to differences have left us more detached and numb to ourselves and others. We have been unable to recognize and appreciate our own humanity and the role we play in society. We are unable to treat ourselves with care, compassion and understanding and thus, are unable to extend that care, compassion and understanding to others. Many have retreated into siloed environments without a desire to recognize the lived experiences of others, or the impact our actions may have on others, particularly those less fortunate and at greater risk than us. It is time we revisit what it truly means to be human, to see and appreciate differences and to positively engage with others. Overcoming the current divisiveness will require that we foster positive civic engagement and community.

Joseph Ruiz, Masters of Social Work Student, California State University, Monterey Bay

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have relied on various forms of media to provide us with information to protect ourselves, families and communities. Far too often, we received inaccurate or misleading information that placed us at risk. This is particularly true in communities inhabited by those who are vulnerable or lack the education, knowledge or resources to obtain accurate and lifesaving information. It is a moral imperative that we develop effective mechanisms for sharing accurate information with those at the greatest risk, including the elderly, those living with mental health challenges, the unhoused, youth, and other vulnerable groups. We overcome politicizing by truth-telling, fact checking and voting out elected officials who are unwilling to do the same.

RaJade M. Berry-James, Professor, North Carolina State University

Since the World Health Organization classified the coronavirus as a global pandemic almost two years ago, research has proven that we can no longer downplay the risks and repercussions of transmitting COVID-19. The virus has acted as a great revealer to the destructive issues that have become commonplace within our society. COVID-19 exacerbated disparities in housing, education, health, justice and the economy. In a time of crisis, where faith in science and government wanes day by day, the presence of COVID-19 is now, more than ever, an example of why advancing equity cannot, and must not, be dismissed.

In just a short time, there has been little effort to turn hypothetical findings into real solutions – and because of this, over 800,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. We must do more than just “talk-the-talk”–we must use our conversations to catalyze practical solutions. We must let our conversations be courageous as we examine the legacy of legislation and lawful practices that exacerbate our equity problems and disproportionately impact racial/ethnic minorities. We must let our conversations be contagious in our aim to quell rumors and misinformation that cause harm for socially vulnerable people living in high burden communities. To stimulate our quest for equity, we must collect, analyze and share stories that demonstrate an unjust or unfair lived experience. Giving agency to others is the first step in the right direction to empower and support marginalized individuals while we “talk-the-talk” and “walk-the-walk” towards dismantling systems of oppression.  

Author: Vanessa Lopez-Littleton, Ph.D., RN, is an Associate Professor at California State University, Monterey Bay and Chair of the Health, Human Services, and Public Policy Department. She is the Chair of the ASPA Section on Democracy and Social Justice and Chair-elect of ASPA San Francisco Bay Area Chapter. Dr. Lopez-Littleton may be reached at [email protected], DrVLoLil.Com or @DrVLoLil

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