In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. This bogus idea can hurt people by allowing diseases to spread. And among those diseases could be COVID-19.
Across the country, health officials have been met with armed protesters at their homes and been subjected to anti-Semitic or transphobic slurs. On social media, they encounter posts that include phrases such as “let’s start shooting” and “bodies swinging from trees.” As the nation faces its gravest health challenge in more than a century, many leaders in public health are reluctantly leaving the field.
It’s true that there have been protests over health policy questions before, from abortion to the Affordable Care Act. Death threats have also become a fact of life for prominent physicians promoting vaccine use, given the virulence of the anti-vaccine movement.
But anger has never been so deep in so many places as during the coronavirus pandemic. Health officials, who have possessed shutdown authority in many jurisdictions for more than a century, haven’t had to use it for decades. People aren’t used to having their freedoms impinged upon so widely or for so long.
“People are enormously frustrated and angry and worn down, and so they lash out,” says Paul Offit, an attending physician in the division of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. “You shoot the messenger. What you really want to shoot is the virus, but instead you shoot the people who tell you about the virus.”
[Georges] Benjamin, the APHA director, notes that public health decisions are often controversial enough to meet with protests. Big, burly men might show up at a hearing to express their displeasure about having to wear motorcycle helmets. Abortion opponents have bombed clinics and murdered physicians. Anti-vaccine protesters have targeted lawmakers with death threats and other intimidation tactics.
But protests targeting individual health officials have reached a new level. “It’s true we’ve had protests,” Benjamin says. “We’ve had offices taken over by AIDS activists, but I don’t think anyone felt threatened. They told us they were coming.”