The White House outbreak: How to criticize irresponsible leaders without getting stuck in the illness blame game

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Sean A. Valles, PhD

In a twist of fate, there was an outbreak of COVID-19 at a White House celebration of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court of the United States. This elicited a wide range of reactions to seeing a gathering of opponents of strict COVID-19 control measures being hurt by the very pandemic they have downplayed. While others have worried about the moral philosophy of taking pleasure in others’ suffering, or the hypocrisy of evading rules one publicly espouses, I have a different worry. A poll shortly after the White House outbreak found that a majority of respondents believed that Trump had acted “irresponsibly” in how he had handled his personal risk of infection from people he interacted with. While I do not worry about the president being blamed for his illness, I do worry about the wider cultural practices of 1) victim-blaming by attributing a person’s illness to their personal moral failure, and 2) insisting that health is a matter of individual choice. While the distinction might not seem important at first, I will argue there is an important difference between victim-blaming the ill and holding leaders accountable for setting bad examples with their conduct and other leadership failures. The first kind of blame is toxic in a society, and the second kind of blame is an important part of a well-functioning democracy.

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court
Image description: President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump pose for a photo with Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the President’s nominee for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, her husband Jesse and their children on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. Image source: Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks.

Blaming people for their ill health is a strategy with an awful track record. It doesn’t do any good for the people subjected to “you’re too fat” messages. It doesn’t do any good for survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence. When directed inward, we self-blame for failing to do enough de-stressing self-care, rather than directing our blame to more appropriate targets like the needlessly bad working conditions or economic insecurities that make us stressed in the first place. Repeated messages that “sickness is the result of individual moral failure” also reinforce stigma. Stigma is a nasty phenomenon, with a “corrosive impact on the health of populations” and is particularly bad in cases of infectious diseases like COVID-19 because it actively encourages people to hide their infection, which is obviously bad for them and for others who interact with them.

A second problem with blaming people for their ill health is that ethics of blaming individual behavior reflects a misunderstanding of how health behavior works in the first place. Seemingly individualistic choices like diet, condom use, smoking, alcohol consumption, etc. are not made independently. We choose such things in roughly the same way we “choose” our religions or the languages we speak at home. Yes, each of us can choose to practice an entirely different religion (or lack thereof), and each of us can learn and use a different language in the home. Some of us do. In all of these cases, though, the vast majority of us don’t venture too far from a combination of what we learned while growing up and the cues we get from the people we interact with. We eat the foods familiar, convenient, and affordable to us. We adopt the values and beliefs (including trust in aspects of the scientific endeavor) of our communities, etc. Individual choices exist, but they exist within larger social contexts that have powerful but subtle effects on our choices.

Each of our everyday behaviors related to COVID-19 exist in a complex ecosystem of influences. Mask wearing and other social distancing measures have become intensely politicized and tied to masculinity. Masks and other health behavior measures also create new inconveniences and financial expenses. Social pressures also vary vastly from one setting to the next—in one store there are prodding questions and judgmental stares for wearing a mask, at an adjacent store there are similar pressures on those who don’t wear a mask. How we move our bodies and (un)cover our faces within these intense social pressures is not simply an individual choice.

Take the case of one of the attendees of the party at the White House, University of Notre Dame President, the Rev. John I. Jenkins. He did not wear a mask at the indoor/outdoor party, shook hands with attendees, and otherwise did not follow the standards he had imposed on members of his own university. He knew better and did not do better. Many of us have likely also gone against our better judgment to fit the incautious social distancing norms of a setting. Whether it is the university president or the university student, this is indeed hypocritical, and irresponsible in a sense. But, such blame is aside from the point, and more importantly it contributes to the sort of harmful cultural practices mentioned earlier—especially victim-blaming and stigmatizing the ill. Pointing out hypocrisy and the assigning of blame for individual health behavior distracts from the far more damaging thing Jenkins and the other leaders at the White House party did. As cultural leaders, they undercut efforts to build new norms, like public mask-wearing, the habit of greeting people without needlessly touching hands, etc.

We ought to blame Trump, Jenkins, and many other leaders who attended that party. We ought to blame them for failing in their relationships to the people they lead. That is a devastating form of irresponsibility. And it is very important to separate that kind of blame and irresponsibility accusation from the destructive form of blame discussed above: blaming people for having irresponsible relationships with their bodies/health.

The “personal responsibility” blame game has been the go-to talking point of conservative governors as they use their power to obstruct or dismantle public health measures. “You shouldn’t have to order somebody to do what is just in your own best interest and that of your family, friends and neighbors,” according to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. Scolding people about “personal responsibility” during a public health crisis is a strategy based on how one wishes the world worked and not how it is actually working. Along similar lines, abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work (“teenagers: be sexually responsible by just not having sex before marriage!”), and neither does “just say no to drugs” education. Jenkins was at least right to point out that his behavior was a failure of leadership. As many of my colleagues in population health science say, we need to build a “culture of health.” That will require leaders suited to the task, and we ought to blame them when they fail in that leadership. Just skip the personal health blaming.

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Sean A. Valles, PhD, is an Associate Professor with an appointment in the Michigan State University Lyman Briggs College and the Department of Philosophy (where he is also Associate Chair). His research spans a range of topics in the philosophy of population health, from the use of evidence in medical genetics to the roles played by race concepts in epidemiology. He is author of the 2018 book Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era. He is also co-editor (with Quill R. Kukla) of the Oxford University Press book series “Bioethics for Social Justice.”

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More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Valles: We Need Healthier Schools, and Student Activists Are Stepping Up; Recognizing Menstrual Supplies as Basic Health Necessities: The Bioethics of #FreePeriodsTrump’s Attempt to Reignite the Coal Industry Is Another Health Policy BlunderPolitics and the Other Lead Poisoning: The Public Health Ethics of Gun ViolenceClimate Change and Medical Risk

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