Faced with a pandemic, good public health requires stronger democracy

Article by Matt Leighninger: “Dealing with Covid-19 requires a massive, coordinated, democratic response. Governments, non-profit organizations, businesses, grassroots groups, and individual citizens all have significant parts to play.

In that sense, our ability to withstand the coronavirus is based in large part on the strength of our democracy. I don’t mean voting, political parties, and the other electoral features we associate with democracy: I mean the extent to which our political system helps people to act collectively, support each other, share information, and collaborate with experts and public officials. Strong democracies are good at these things.

Unfortunately, our democracy isn’t very strong right now. Trust between citizens and government officials is at an all-time low, most people don’t feel like they have a meaningful say in public decisions, and in many cases, we can’t even agree on how to separate fact from fiction. Volunteerism is strong — especially now, as people react to the crisis — but volunteers generally don’t feel that their service is valued or supported by our political system…

Strengthening democracy, at all the levels of government, can help us achieve the kind of trust we need to deal with Covid-19 — so that people trust in the information they get from doctors and medical authorities like the Centers for Disease Control, so that doctors and public health officials trust that citizens will wash their hands and avoid contact with each other, so that people in different parts of the country will trust that we’re all in this together.

The new Community Voices for Health initiative, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and assisted by Public Agenda and Altarum, will provide new examples of what stronger democracy can look like. Over the next two years, teams in six states will engage thousands of people in decision-making, problem-solving, and community-building. From the work of community health workers in Georgia… to health plans developed by county and tribal councils in New Mexico… to online survey panels on policy questions in Pennsylvania and Colorado… to youth leadership in Nevada… to public participation laws in Indiana, this initiative will explore new ways of engaging residents for better health.

The next wave of technological innovations also provides many opportunities for strengthening democracy. For example, there are interesting new tools for informing voters (like VoteCompass), bridging different viewpoints (like the vTaiwan process), and gathering input from large numbers of people (like BeHeard Philly)….

In the face of a possible flu pandemic 15 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control took a closer look at how engagement could be influential in counteracting these threats. Summing up that experience, CDC epidemiologist Roger Bernier concluded that “Democracy is good for your health.” We should take that statement as more than just a platitude — we should explore the concrete ways of making our democracy stronger….(More)”