California is facing a crisis of authority. Increasing physical threats against health officers over their COVID-19 rules reveal a fracture between the public and its leaders.
Rules are staples of democratic societies that emerge from those we choose to govern us. We stop at traffic lights, pay taxes and wait in line to purchase groceries. These and countless policies provide order and a framework for us to co-exist.
Which takes us to the challenge to authority over management of the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken the lives of 125,000 Americans. For the rest of us, dealing with the deadly virus has affected just about everything we do.
Millions of Californians now work from home, and they’re the lucky ones, given that millions more have lost their jobs under the shelter-in-place ordered by state and local leaders to manage the pandemic.
Even kids have suffered massive disruptions, ranging from a truncated school year to separation from their friends. Activities once viewed as routine — restaurant dining, a visit to a hair salon, going to the movies — are either banned or available under once-unimaginable rules. Some wonder, why can’t we be left alone to cope with this COVID-19 mess?
Sometimes we forget that the directives imposed by COVID-19 public health managers are designed to protect us from illness and death. Beginning with shelter-in-place, rules were created to save us from needless exposure to those with the virus. In California, Gov. Newsom and his staff created a basic outline for moving the state from shelter-in-place to a more “normal” routine, assuming that local governments met the requirements of benchmarks related to reduced illness, fewer deaths, tracing and other elements. County public health officers were assigned responsibility for determining compliance with such benchmarks.
Most Californians have accepted the rules. They recognize that temporarily uncomfortable orders represent the best opportunity for minimizing the pandemic until a vaccine brings a more positive outcome. However, some people have ignored the regulations as unnecessary, excessive or inconsistent with their personal values and needs.
Rejection of the state’s COVID-19 policy response has revealed an ugly underside of California. Opponents have complained and even protested against what they consider outrageous intrusions into their lives by county public health officers.
On some occasions, local health officers, including Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody, have had threats serious enough to draw police attention. On others, county supervisors and other officials rattled by opponents’ demands have undermined the authority of health officials — not exactly a badge of leadership.
Persistent and often ugly anti-regulation behaviors have taken a toll on public health officers attempting to do their jobs. They have been so threatening that in at least eight instances, key local health experts have resigned rather than serve under such intimidating conditions. Two state health officials have left their posts over angry protests.
The disrupters who have intimidated local public health officials into leaving office or changing policies may feel personally rewarded by their abusive behavior, but their “success” has been society’s defeat.
Their rejection of authoritative expertise has made it difficult for health officers to carry out state and local mandates. Moreover, the selfishness of these individuals has put local populations at greater risk of a pandemic that can be controlled only with public cooperation.
A much better way for opponents to dispute the regulations for COVID-19 would be to take their issues to the ballot box, but their arrogance suggests that even elections would be an unnecessary nuisance.
The old saying goes, “A chain is as strong as its weakest link.” The strength of our COVID-19 health care management chain is being tested. Should the opponents of public health officials become strong enough to break that chain, the pandemic may last longer and take many more lives than it would have. As with any societal crisis, this is a time to put the needs of community over self.
Larry N. Gerston is political science professor emeritus from San Jose State University and author of California Politics and Government with Terry Christensen.