The expression “don’t blame the messenger” couldn’t be more appropriate than when it comes to the work of public health officials during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They have been harassed and threatened with death just for advising Americans on how to avoid spreading the virus.
We can’t ignore this hate, but we also must recognize the vast majority of people support the work of public health officials. A recent poll commissioned by The California Endowment found that two-thirds of the state’s voters approve of how public health officers at both the state and local levels are handling the pandemic.
We also know from the poll that while some Californians have aggressively protested protective measures that have saved thousands of lives, they don’t represent the views of most California residents. This is especially true when it comes to California’s working people.
The California Endowment’s poll assessed workers making up to $50,000 annually and found that 73 percent believe that the coronavirus remains a “very serious” health concern in California. In addition, 55 percent believe the “worst is yet to come.”
The poll clearly shows that it would be wrong to give the views of those who ignore public safety any influence as we attempt to get the virus under control.
The poll also confirms the overwhelming support for public health leaders, who acted quickly and got out in front of the pandemic. That decisive early action saved lives, and now their call for protective actions played out as Gov. Gavin Newsom instituted new measures when the virus spiked in several counties.
Economic concerns are important in this debate, but can you imagine the body blow the economy would take if an unregulated reopening forced us into a prolonged lockdown?
We flattened the curve early, but we have been giving back that success with irresponsible behavior. We must stay the course, not just for the state’s overall health, but to protect the most vulnerable.
The poll tells us that across the racial and ethnic spectrum, working Californians are fearful for their health. They are less concerned about the larger economic impacts of COVID-19 and more concerned about protecting themselves and their families from this deadly and relentless virus.
These workers also have a more realistic understanding of how long this epidemic will last than do those that are protesting public health measures, and they trust local and state authorities more than they trust the federal government.
One must only ask these Californians how they feel about this pandemic and it becomes clear the rush to reopen the economy is being driven by blowhard politicians and billionaires, not the “essential workers” who must bear the real risk of COVID-19.
The sad truth is that many of these workers are Californians of color who are being sickened and killed at disproportionate rates by COVID-19. Three-quarters of the respondents in our poll agree that lower-income communities are bearing a disproportionate share of the impacts of coronavirus (both health and economic), and about three in five say the same for communities of color.
The virus doesn’t discriminate but our policies do. Structural racism and its pernicious legacy put Black and brown Californians directly in harm’s way during this pandemic.
These workers are very aware that people of color are bearing an uneven and unfair burden of illness and death from COVID-19. Ninety-three percent agree that “all Californians have a shared responsibility to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”
In addition, 82 percent of respondents say that “it is the responsibility of all Californians to ensure that all people living in the state have the opportunity to live healthy, safe, and economically secure lives.”
Historically, communities that rushed to reopen during the 1918 influenza pandemic paid a steep price in the form of a brutal death toll and sustained economic havoc compared to their peers who were cautious and patient. We must stay the course, not just for the state’s overall health, but to protect our most vulnerable. We owe that to our sisters and brothers who are on the front lines as essential workers. We must act in solidarity with them.
We are Californians. We care about each other and recognize that we are all interconnected. We’ll get through this crisis by thinking about the needs of others and doing our part to vanquish this virus.
Dr. Anthony Iton is senior vice president of the California Endowment overseeing the 14 Building Healthy Communities projects. He has a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley.