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03 Mar

A Foreign Perspective, News and Analyses

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World Politics

United States

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg has launched one of the most audacious campaigns for the US presidency in modern times – pouring almost half a billion dollars of his vast fortune into creating the most expensive nomination bid in US history. But the former mayor of New York is under intense scrutiny: here’s a look at the key issues that could derail his race to the White House

Putting Mike Pence in charge is proof that the White House wants to protect its political line, not protect Americans

‘Pence’s public health record is disastrous. As governor of Indiana, he was responsible for the largest HIV outbreak in state history. Pence has also downplayed the link between smoking and cancer.’

‘Pence’s public health record is disastrous. As governor of Indiana, he was responsible for the largest HIV outbreak in state history. Pence has also downplayed the link between smoking and cancer.’ Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

To effectively contain an outbreak, government decisions must be based on saving lives, not scoring political points.

Last week, the White House announced that the vice-president, Mike Pence, will lead the coronavirus task force. The administration has been criticized for its handling of the epidemic, and the intent of this press conference was to show the world they are taking the situation seriously. It did the opposite.

Pence’s public health record is disastrous. As the governor of Indiana, Pence was responsible for the largest HIV outbreak in state history. He slashed public health spending, triggering the closure of HIV testing sites. Against the advice of scientists, he banned needle exchanges, causing transmissions to spread due to increased needle sharing.

Pence has also downplayed the link between smoking and cancer. “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media,” he once wrote in an opinion piece, “smoking doesn’t kill.” In fact, research shows that as high as two out of three smokers die from a smoking-related illness.

Pence’s track record should disqualify him for any leadership positions in public health.

In practice, of course, Pence’s role will likely be more a spokesperson than a quarterback. The most critical decisions on the epidemic should rightly be steered by career government scientists and public health specialists with years of expertise. Pence’s appointment is largely symbolic, designed to show that the administration is in full control of the situation.

But all leadership roles matter. On Thursday, the White House announced it would tighten coronavirus messaging, and all statements and public appearances by public health officials and scientists must be approved by the vice-president. The New York Times reported that the White House instructed one of the nation’s top infectious disease experts, Dr Anthony S Fauci, not to say anything else without clearance. That’s alarming.

The administration’s move is unusual. In previous outbreaks such as Sars and Ebola, federal scientists communicated directly with the media and public.

Of course, it is important to coordinate messages in response to national emergencies like an outbreak or natural disaster. Government agencies need to ensure accuracy and consistency in their messaging, and avoid contradicting each other and confusing the public.

But letting officials speak freely isn’t the root cause of their problems; it’s that the Trump administration is elevating the wrong representatives, who don’t understand what they’re talking about.

This isn’t the first time the White House has restricted the speech of public health experts. In 2017, the administration prohibited CDC officials from using a list of seven words – including “evidence-based” and “science-based” – in official documents. Under these conditions, it’s impossible for scientists to do their work serving the public to the best of their abilities. During a public health crisis, any censorship could be catastrophic.

Pence’s appointment follows a track record of the administration prioritizing politics over scientific expertise. Trump has appointed fossil fuel lobbyists to lead the EPA, climate deniers to head up Nasa and the Council on Environmental Quality, Dow executives to USDA leadership, and a chemical industry insider to run the EPA’s toxic chemicals program. These appointments have eroded public trust and shifted the priorities of these agencies from saving lives to special interests.

According to the World Health Organization, three important best practices for effective communication during an outbreak are building trust, making information available early and ensuring transparency. But how can the public be confident in leadership that has bungled public health responses before? And how can critical announcements be made early and transparently to the public when there is a heavy-handed policing of what scientists can say?

Outbreaks always have a political dimension because they can cause social disruption and economic losses. No leaders want to look weak or not in control. Motivated by politics, authorities can severely impede outbreak control by withholding information or downplaying its significance. But lives must take priority over politics.

To overcome an epidemic, we need the public to have confidence in our federal agencies. The White House should let an expert with an experienced background, strong track record and a command of public trust lead the coronavirus task force.

Now is the time for honest and humble governance. Viruses don’t discriminate between liberals and conservatives. Dedicated and talented government scientists are working hard to protect us all. We should allow them the freedom to get on with their important jobs.

  • Dr Lucky Tran is a scientist, science communicator and organizer based in New York City. He has a PhD in biology from the University of Cambridge, and has coordinated public health communications during several global outbreaks including Ebola, Zika virus and Covid-19

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