A half face dust mask and HEPA filter over white background.

Being an Adult in the Face of Omicron

By Jennifer S. Bard

To those who believe that the federal government is a benign force doing the best they can to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and keep us all safe, I have two words of advice: Grow up.

Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or Dr. Fauci should be anthropomorphized into a benevolent but perhaps out-of-touch parental figure. They are not.

As a matter of law, the government, in contrast to your parents, or school, or perhaps even your employer, does not have a fiduciary duty to protect your (or any individual’s) health and safety. As the Supreme Court said in Deshaney v. Winnebago Country Dept of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1980) and again in Castlerock v. Gonzales, 545 U.S. 748 (2005), individuals do not have an enforceable right to government protection unless the state itself creates the danger. Their duty, if it exists, is to the public in general, which can encompass many factors beyond any one person’s health.

Just knowing that the government, duly elected or not, has no obligation to protect you or your family should be enough to look at its pandemic guidance as minimum, rather than maximum, standards. It should also encourage you to be proactive in taking precautions beyond those “recommended,” rather than seeing these minimal standards as unwarranted restrictions that can be negotiated down.

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Freeway on-ramp

The Government Needs to Construct On, Not Off, Ramps to Combat the Latest Wave of COVID

By Jennifer S. Bard

Over the past two weeks, the news coming in about the spread of COVID-19 has been eerily familiar. Cases are rising all over Europe, not just in under-vaccinated Eastern European countries, but in England, the Netherlands, and Germany — all of whom have much higher rates of vaccination than the U.S. At the same time, cases across the U.S., including in cities like LA, DC, and Chicago have stopped falling, and are rising rapidly in the Mountain West, including the Navajo Nation. Hospitals in Colorado have already reached crisis capacity.

Whether the increase is attributable to the emergence of yet another variant, or perhaps is a natural artifact of waning immunity, it is very real and demands a level of attention from our federal government that, once again, it is failing to provide.

Yet in the face of now too familiar signs of resurgence, already being called a “Fifth Wave,” not only are the usual minimizers advocating reducing existing measures to prevent spread, but cities and states are rolling back what few protections remain intact. It is in the face of this foolish movement to drop our guard that the federal government is, again, failing to use the powers it has beyond vaccine mandates to create much needed on-ramps for mitigation measures as the country heads into winter.

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Concept: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The Paradoxical Legal Treatment of Preventive Medicine

By Doron Dorfman

Preventive medicine is a tool used by individual patients, primary care physicians, and governmental agencies to preempt illnesses rather than to treat them after they have arisen. Despite this salubrious aim, stigma, shame, and fear often are attached to the use of preventative care.

The stigma around preventive medicine can arise from the tendency to view such measures as a proxy for risky or otherwise socially marginalized behavior or lifestyle. Why would someone use a preventative measure if they are not at high risk as a consequence of their own choices?

Consider, for example, what I call “sexually charged” preventative health measures like the human papillomavirus vaccine or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is a highly effective daily drug regimen that prevents HIV infection, which has become specifically popular with gay and bisexual men.

As I discuss in a forthcoming paper, PrEP has been viewed by policymakers and health care professionals as a “license for promiscuity” due to the fear of risk compensation, meaning the adjustment of risky behavior by those who take PrEP to potentially have sex with more partners and with no condoms. Such views are reflected in Kelley v. Becerra, a case pending before the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Texas, where plaintiffs wish to purchase insurance that excludes coverage for PrEP and contraception, to which they object to on religious and moral grounds.

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 05: Emergency medical technician wearing protective gown and facial mask amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 5, 2020 in New York City.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

By Jennifer S. Bard

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us time and time again that whatever progress we make in curbing transmission of the virus is tenuous, fragile, and easily reversed.

And yet, we continue on a hapless path of declaring premature victory and ending mitigation measures the moment cases begin to fall. We need only look back to recent history to see why relaxing at this present moment of decline is ill-advised.

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New York City, New York/USA June 2, 2020 Black Lives Matter Protest March demanding justice for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality.

The Centrality of Social Movements in Addressing the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Malia Maier and Terry McGovern

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in higher rates of family violence. For advocates and funders, this provided important opportunities to partner with movements, including racial justice, Gender-Based Violence (GBV), Reproductive Justice, and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) movements.

We interviewed 24 GBV and SRHR service providers, advocacy organizations, and donors throughout the country to understand how the pandemic and concurrent racial justice movements were impacting critical GBV and SRHR services.

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police cars lined up.

Policing Public Health: Carceral-Logic Lessons from a Mid-Size City

By Zain Lakhani, Alice Miller, Kayla Thomas, with Anna Wherry

When it comes to public health intervention in a contagion, policing remains a primary enforcement tool. And where a health state is intertwined with carceral logics, enforcement becomes coercive; emphasis is placed on the control of movement and behavior, rather than on support and care.

Our experience in New Haven during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic well illuminates this, while also revealing a logic of exceptional force lying dormant in municipal health practices.

Attending to the local is all the more important, albeit difficult, for fast moving and intensely quotidian practices, as COVID in the U.S. seems to be settling in as a pandemic of the local.

Our experience as activist-scholars working with a New Haven-based sex worker-led harm-reduction service and advocacy group, SWAN, suggests that by focusing on municipal practices, we can better understand what public health police power actually is. By orienting our scholarship toward the way social movements engage with local politics, we can then address how these police powers complicate the ability of those most at risk of both disease exposure and police abuse to engage with local authorities. Absent this engagement and critique, progressive policies for constructive state public health powers may be more vulnerable to attack from the right.

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Beverly Hills, CA: April 7, 2021: Anti-mask protesters holding signs related to COVID-19. Beverly Hills and the state of California have a mask mandate requirement.

What Makes Social Movements ‘Healthy’?

By Wendy E. Parmet

Social movements can play an important role in promoting population health and reducing health disparities. Yet, their impact need not be salutatory, as is evident by the worrying success that the anti-vaccination movement has had in stoking fears about COVID-19 vaccines.

So, what makes a health-related social movement “healthy?” We need far more research about the complex dynamics and interactions between social movements and health, but the experience of a few health-related social movements offers some clues.

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Blue house in grass field.

Community-Based Response to Intimate Partner Violence During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Leigh Goodmark

Intimate partner violence has been called “a pandemic within the pandemic.”

A study of fourteen American cities found that the number of domestic violence calls to law enforcement rose 9.7% in March and April 2020, compared to the previous year. A hospital-based study spanning the same time period found significant increases in the number of people treated for injuries related to intimate partner violence. And a 2021 review of 18 studies relying on data from police, domestic violence hotlines, and health care providers found that reports of intimate partner violence increased 8% after lockdown orders were imposed.

Although almost half of people subjected to abuse never call the state for assistance, our responses to intimate partner violence are largely embedded within the state and rely heavily on law enforcement. A disproportionate amount of funding under the Violence Against Women Act — by one estimate, 85% — is directed to the criminal legal system. A growing number of activists skeptical of state intervention are arguing that responses beyond the carceral state are essential.

The pandemic showed that community-based supports, like pod mapping, mutual aid, and community accountability, originally developed by activists critical of law enforcement responses to violence, can foster safety and accountability without requiring state intervention. The pandemic could spur advocates seeking to distance themselves from state-based responses to expand their services.

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Police car.

Blurring the Line Between Public Health and Public Safety

By Jocelyn Simonson

Collective movement struggles during the twin crises of COVID-19 and the 2020 uprisings have helped blur the concepts of public safety and public health.

These movements have shown how all of our public health and all of our public safety suffers when we use the police, prosecution, and prisons to solve our collective problems. Their collective resistance to the status quo underscores how these terms — public health and public safety — too often carry with them an exclusionary understanding of which “public” matters.

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