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COVID-19 is political, so scientists should be too

I ran for Congress because it needs more scientists. But that’s just one of many ways we can have more influence on our government.

Demonstrators at the March for Science in Washington on April 22, 2017.
Demonstrators at the March for Science in Washington on April 22, 2017.NYT

Recent reports that President Trump intentionally downplayed the risk of COVID-19 and that political appointees interfered with weekly releases of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention make clear that the administration is not only failing to meet the moment — which has cost more than 200,000 Americans their lives — but has also launched a concerted attack on science and scientists. The attack is working. Even as politicians commit to using “health outcomes and science — not politics” to guide decisions around reopening schools or rolling out a vaccine, one of the main predictors of who follows health guidance, such as mask-wearing, is what party they vote for. Indeed, public health guidance has become so politically charged and misinformation so widespread that an unprecedented number of public health officials have faced violent threats and have been fired or resigned.

This catastrophic failure of leadership has rightly outraged public health communities. Yet health professionals in the United States have often been expected to remain politically neutral, and historically they have — often to the point of even disengaging from politics in their private lives as citizens. As Eitan Hersh and Dr. Daniel Horn observed recently, health care workers were less likely to vote in 2016 than their counterparts in many other sectors, including agriculture, entertainment, education, and law.

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This dynamic needs to change: COVID-19 has exposed that epidemics are deeply political. This fall, health professionals must not shy away from our role in advocating for the political change needed to improve health. At a minimum, we must vote and help others vote too.

Organizations such as votER, a nonpartisan nonprofit that enables doctors, nurses, and social workers to help their patients register to vote at hospitals and clinics, are already doing this. Grassroots coalitions such as Doctors for Biden are capitalizing on the shared frustration of frontline health workers. Even Scientific American magazine, which had never endorsed a presidential candidate in its 175-year history, endorsed Joe Biden, noting that Trump’s rejection of evidence and science has led to a disastrous response to the pandemic.

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Science and politics do not need to be at odds. We have global examples of scientists occupying elected leadership positions. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a chemist by training. Until May, Taiwan’s vice president was Chen Chien-jen, a former epidemiologist. Both countries have fared far better than most countries in their COVID responses. To effectively address health emergencies, it may be time to shift the focus from protecting science from politics to intentionally inserting science, and scientists, into politics.

But what would it mean to transform the US political landscape so that more scientists, public health experts, doctors, and nurses would not only support politicians but also run for office and succeed?

In late April I decided to run to represent Massachusetts' Fourth Congressional District: an open seat but a crowded field. I am a social epidemiologist, which means I examine how social structures, our environment, and policies affect our health, and I had been warning that this crisis would amplify the deep inequities our country has yet to solve. I knew that the impacts on people’s health and livelihoods, the economy, and human rights would be felt for years without an explicit equity-focused and evidence-based national response. It quickly became apparent that the Trump administration would not deliver, and that our Congress had too few members with relevant expertise. I believed then, as I do now, that we can no longer afford to hope that politicians listen to scientists to get us through crises; we must elect scientists. And I was not the only health professional compelled to run.

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Every race is unique, and it is particularly challenging to draw lessons from campaigning during the COVID-19 pandemic, but one thing I learned is that a background in health and an unconventional profile can be appealing to voters across the political spectrum. My campaign found high levels of support with both progressive and more conservative voters, and across the district’s diverse geography. Could having more scientists in Congress, with our focus on evidence and data, help bridge the political divide?

I also saw how a newcomer to politics may attract support from unexpected places. In just four months my team galvanized hundreds of volunteers, including many who had never previously engaged in political campaigns, and secured endorsements from over 200 health professionals, most of whom had never previously lent their name to a candidate. It is healthy for our democracy to make space for new voters, new volunteers, and new voices.

Unfortunately, however, various systems make it difficult for newcomers to succeed. Media and political analysts assess the “viability” of candidates with metrics such as fundraising totals and the number of political endorsements as proxies for voter support. These metrics likely significantly underestimate the potential appeal of scientists who lack strong political and business networks, and those early assessments of viability can turn into self-fulfilling prophesies. Instead, other metrics, such as voter support per dollar spent (when there are polls), or the number of new volunteers per week, could be used to assess momentum and the appeal of unconventional candidates. More fundamentally, campaign finance reform and ranked-choice voting may help more diverse candidates, including scientists, to run and succeed. Massachusetts has the opportunity to make the latter reform a reality in November with ballot question 2 — and I support it.

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My commitment to my volunteers and voters was that no matter what the outcome of the race, I would continue to bring a public health perspective to the political debate. If scientists and health professionals don’t use our skills, our expertise, and our voices to shape the political conversation, we may be looking at four more years of irreparable damage. It’s time to volunteer, donate, and vote like our lives depend on it.

Natalia Linos is the executive director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard. She was a candidate in this year’s Democratic primary in Massachusetts' Fourth Congressional District. Follow her on Twitter @DrNataliaLinos.