Editorial: Again, medical populism

·2 min read

WHILE the pandemic’s way of claiming lives seems random, with people supposedly in robust health dying and some vulnerable ones showing no symptom, there is an undeniable fact of record deaths in 2020. It sweeps across sectors—from paupers to politicians. The degree of separation gets closer each time—friends, family, neighbors.

And, yes, here we are again, surrounded by deniers and peddlers of the idea that this whole pandemic is mere excuse to milk health funds.

To recall, Transparency International (TI) ranked the Philippines at third place in its 2020 Corruption Perception Index: “With a score of 34, efforts to control corruption in the Philippines mostly appear stagnant since 2012. The government’s response to Covid-19 has been characterized by abusive enforcement and major violations of human rights and media freedom.”

The TI’s study aims to correlate state corruption to Covid pandemic response. Countries with high incidence of corruption tend to perform poorly during the health crisis with their governments perennially underfunding public health.

In this pandemic, corrupt governments find themselves at a defensive while public pressure for more comprehensive and prompt action against the pandemic builds up.

In response, leaders try a different tack to divert attention from their incompetence. A study published in the Social Science and Medicine Journal proposed the term “medical populism,” highlighting four points: 1) The concept of medical populism is introduced to make sense of health emergencies; 2) It is a political style that simplifies and dramatizes crisis; 3) It pits “the people” against “the establishment”; 4) It has implications to health communication and democratic politics.

“As politics becomes increasingly stylized, audiences fragmented, and established knowledge claims contested, health crises have become even more vulnerable to politicization,” the study’s abstract read.

The study further said, “While some health emergencies lead to technocratic responses that soothe anxieties of a panicked public, medical populism thrives by politicizing, simplifying and spectacularizing complex public health issues.”

We are bringing out these while we grope in the dark on when we are about to gain traction in this race between a new spike of Covid cases and the arrival of the vaccines. All we have ever heard from government are abstractions that vaccines are coming. If there’s that vague light of day that’s arriving, it’s a mere trickle headed toward a sector of frontliners.

Six out of 10 of our Southeast Asian neighbors have rolled out their vaccination, namely, Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. We are, at the moment, still scrambling to secure supplies. Worse, we have leaders who are perpetual Covid deniers and refuse to confront the problem head on while they stir back the public into the endless debate of whether the virus is real or not. That is how they steal attention from the fact that they have never fully invested both effort and funding for public health.