Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA), thinks the COVID-19 pandemic has led to people becoming much more health literate.
The results have been a mixed blessing, he said.
Prior to March 2020, public health officials were not household names and their actions were not making national news daily. But now they and front-line workers are facing threats and harassment.
“In the old days, and that wasn’t that long ago, we would have a public discussion around — well, we wouldn’t have a public discussion. There would be a foodborne outbreak somewhere in the community, or a hepatitis A outbreak in a restaurant or from a wedding, and it might be on page 10, depending on who the wedding couple was or whether or not an elected official was at the event,” Benjamin said in a recent interview with The Hill.
Benjamin has spent decades in the sector, beginning in 1990 when he served as acting commissioner of the District of Columbia Department of Health. He became Maryland’s health secretary in 1999 and stepped down to lead the APHA in 2002.
Benjamin said he’s seen his fair share of policy arguments, but most of them have been substantial, fact-based disagreements, rather than the extreme anger and hatred that’s been directed at health officials this year and last.
“I think it’s in line with a lot of the disorder that we’re seeing in our nation, so I guess in many ways I’m not surprised that we have been brought into this but obviously dismayed that we have,” Benjamin said.
“I’m obviously a strong believer in the First Amendment and people’s right to protest. But … showing up in front of somebody’s house and threatening their kids … that’s unacceptable,” he said.
While much of the U.S. pandemic response has become politicized, Benjamin said, “it’s a mistake to think that public health is not going to be brought into politics.”
“Public health has always been about politics; we kind of pretend like it isn’t.”
“Public health does its work fundamentally through policy change. …….