Monkeypox: Do's and Don'ts for Public Health Leaders
We should incorporate the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic into our response to the new public health threat.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a painful reminder that, despite massive advances in medicine and technology as well as greater access to medical services and life-sustaining infrastructure, no one is immune from viral health threats. In many people’s opinion, we didn’t do a good job tackling the pandemic. Some think lockdowns went too far, and some, that they weren’t strict enough. Some were wary of getting a shot of the fastest-ever-approved vaccine, while others favored mandatory vaccination. Many people died, many more got sick and continue to suffer, and yet more are plagued with pandemic-related issues. By most metrics, the US pandemic response was botched.
Now, a new health threat is underway stateside: monkeypox. Thankfully, the virus is magnitudes less contagious than COVID-19, but its mortality rate is yet to be determined with confidence. What we do know, however, is that there are better and worse ways of tackling its spread. Drawing lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, we propose the following principles:
Treat the general public with respect. Slapping “it’s science” on a mandatory measure is not sound justification. People want to be told the truth and to get a chance to take an active part in responding to the threat, as opposed to being coerced into executing the wishes of a small number of unelected officials.
Allow the private sector to lead. Private companies have the expertise, operational capabilities, and adaptability necessary to respond to urgent threats. They were prevented in the United States from participating in the race to a test during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the world’s population paid dearly for it.
Collect and publish relevant and accurate data. Only late into the pandemic did failures by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention come into broad daylight, from poor vaccination counts to failing to collect hospital-level data. What’s more, the CDC also failed to publish much of the data it collected. Regaining trust starts with transparency, and publishing accurate data should be front and center in governmental response to current and future threats.
Turn the response to the disease into a partisan exercise. At first, the race to the vaccine was seen as a Republican endeavor, with many Democrats vowing to shun the shots once they would become available. Looking at attitudes toward it today, it’s hard to believe that the vaccine was developed and first approved under President Trump. As for mask wearing, its signaling power has rendered any discussion of its merits impossible. We politicize response tactics at our peril, and associating a particular measure with a political party or ideology is a sure way to diminishing its effectiveness.
Scare people into obedience. Those prone to panicking about health threats are still terrified, and those who discarded COVID-19 as a leftist plot will grow all the bolder. The majority of Americans don’t fall in either camp, so being level headed and adopting an adult tone to talk about the real extent of the threat is likely to actually translate into an appropriate response from the population.
Censure or demonize people who disagree with government actions. For the sake of the republic, foster a spirit of collaboration and openness among people who are trying to decide what to do in response to the threat. Not everyone is qualified to make CDC guidelines, but shunning scientists because they dare to challenge the conclusions of their colleagues is detrimental to the scientific process. Let a thousand flowers bloom, the wheat and the chaff, and let experts of all stripes and discipline come together to devise a path forward.
We’re lucky that monkeypox isn’t as dangerous as COVID-19. Its ongoing spread is both a threat and an opportunity: We need to limit it, and we must use it as training ground for deadlier and more infectious diseases. The time to get our response right is now.