Public health dominates political discussion today. Masks, vaccines, social distancing – these are the issues about which we now argue daily. Not economics or the increasingly volatile geopolitical situation, but public health.
And I’m not just talking about the Covid pandemic. Indeed, virtually all aspects of social and political life today are now framed through the idiom of public health. Problems we used to treat as political and social questions are now often presented as medical issues.
So critics of prime minister Boris Johnson do not simply question his political record – they also brand him a public-health problem. As one article puts it, ‘Boris Johnson’s dwindling authority [is] becoming a “public-health issue”’. Likewise, Donald Trump was labelled a ‘public-health threat’ by his opponents while in office.
Public health has become a principal means to attack a political opponent or a set of political ideas. In 2019, a group of medics even wrote a letter to the Guardian calling a No Deal Brexit a ‘threat to public health’. Other critics of Brexit called it a ‘confused concept that threatens public health’. As public health has become politicised, politics has become medicalised.
The pandemic has intensified this medicalisation of politics. There is now virtually nothing that cannot be conceived of as a public-health issue. Take racism. Writing in the Lancet earlier this year, identitarian academic Kehinde Andrews insisted that ‘racism is a public-health crisis’. In the US, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, made a similar claim earlier this year. ‘Racism is a serious public-health threat that directly affects the wellbeing of millions of Americans’, she said. The CDC has since launched a new ‘Racism and Health’ web portal.
All this changes the very meaning of racism. Racial oppression used to be understood in terms of political, social and economic domination. Now it is understood in terms of ill-health. The racially oppressed are now as likely to be seen as patients in need of medical intervention as they are victims of political injustice. ‘Racism isn’t just unfair. It’s making us ill’, complains a Guardian contributor.
Likewise, anti-racist campaigners portray racism as a mental-health problem. Student supporters of the Rhodes Must Fall movement at Oxford University have claimed that they feel traumatised by the presence of the Cecil Rhodes statue.
Increasingly, the presentation of a social problem as a supposed threat to public health is a means to draw attention to it. That is why President Biden recently chose to condemn gun violence as a public-health epidemic. Unable to present a critique of violence and crime in moral terms, he decided to offer one through the language of medicine.
Virtually every dimension of life has been reframed as a matter of public health. ‘Homophobia is a health issue’, argues one academic. Gambling is, too. So are climate change and war. Even boredom has been categorised as a threat to public health.