Cheeseburgers or Fish and Chips?
What we don’t commonly realize is that public health is infrastructure, just like bridges and roads. We’ve been neglecting it for decades, and that has helped make the pandemic so devastating.
Every week the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, a former professor at the University of Michigan, sends notices about recent research results -- these days, often about the coronavirus. But what I found really captivating was a new book a reader called to my attention: Brian Alexander’s The Hospital: Life, Death and Dollars in a Small American Town. (St. Martin’s Press, 2021.) It is about the community hospital in Bryan, Ohio, barely 60 miles from Toledo, a hospital founded a century ago by Dr. Henry Winzeler, who also founded the Ohio Art Company in nearby Archbold.
The book chronicles Bryan Hospital’s struggles to stay open, along with the forces that have weakened so much of health care in America. “The virus seeped into the fault lines created by America’s pathologies,” the author observed. “The country had changed from being an ongoing project to improve democratic society and live humanistic ideals to being a framework for fostering corporate profit … a new version of capitalism which starved the nation of public goods while showering private interests with dollars became equated with patriotism,” the author noted, adding. “the federal government slashed money allocated to prepare for emergencies (like COVID). By 2018 Ohio was spending less than $13 per person on public health.”
Public health, like our roads and schools, has been eroded for years by inattention and financial starvation. Americans got unfit; obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and lack of proper medical care took their toll. Drug and alcohol abuse added to a culture of malignant disinterest and self-sabotage.
This was all abetted by deliberate public policy, and lobbying efforts funded by the energy sector, the drug industries, tobacco companies, and the anti-government Koch brothers. Robert Langer, a co-founder of Moderna, now holds a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology funded by the late David Koch.
States, particularly those where oil and gas drove the economy, like Texas and Oklahoma, saw their public’s health decline first. The rich took away from the poor and the poor died sooner, and were often the first to suffer and die from COVID-19. In response to a recent column, one reader replied, “you can’t fix stupid.”
But the policies that led to the current crises are worse than stupid -- they were deliberate. Dan Patrick, the humanity-challenged lieutenant governor of Texas said “there are more important things than living” when calling for businesses to reopen at the height of the pandemic.
Tragically, he wasn’t much different than many others of his ilk – just more honest. “There has been an epidemic of ignorance, disinformation, propaganda and downright lying in the service of vote getting,” Mr. Alexander said. Before President Trump’s bill to slash corporate taxes passed in 2017, I told a local TV station that cutting taxes for large corporations should not be more important than helping a college that educated students for free whose families earned less than $35,000 per year. Nevertheless, Berea College in Kentucky had to pay tax on its endowment earnings so Owens Corning in Toledo could buy back its stock and increase the value per share.
Then the great leveler, or at great destroyer, COVID-19 showed up. And for months, we blew it. No matter how much some deny it, our failure as a nation to address this threat adequately probably cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Those politicians who refuse to urge voters to wear masks have blood on their hands.
Ironically, some of those same leaders got the virus themselves, a virus that often has long-term effects on the taste buds. One wonders if Donald Trump can taste his cheeseburgers, or Boris Johnson his fish and chips.
This week a research report appeared confirming that the nose and nasal cavity is not the only source of infection; the virus can infect a body through the mouth. The news releases from India over the last week or more are appalling. So many are dying authorities are running out of wood to cremate the dead.
Once a land that tried to help the world, America has become a selfish country full of short-sighted individuals who mostly care for themselves. “Trump was a lying sociopath,” author Alexander said, and adds that people in Bryan, Ohio, an area that overwhelmingly supported the former president, died as a result.
Meanwhile, more than a million Ohioans have been sickened by the virus, and more than 19.000 are dead. Fortunately, the vaccine seems to be working. With better leadership America will survive -- if given time enough, and if we learn from the past, As for me, the skeptical scientist, I hope the vaccines continue to work. Now, if only a vaccine against selfishness and stupidity were on the horizon.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. Follow his website, Science in 3D, at 3dscienceblog.com