Environment, Government, Public Health

Now what? Almost a week after the election…

November 14, 2016

It’s been almost a week since the election, and we’ve barely talked about anything else. That’s appropriate. There’s been a seismic shift in America, and its impact is only beginning to be felt and experienced.

Many people are thrilled, and others are devastated. Public health skews to the left so there are more people confused, sad and seeking a way forward in a world that suddenly feels unknown, without signposts. As I heard a supporter of Trump from Philadelphia say on NPR Sunday night, that’s how he and many others felt after President Obama was elected to a second term.

Irrespective of our political propensities, most people in public health believe health care is a right, although we might argue, even in the Gillings School, about how best to achieve that right – insurance vs. one national health plan. We’ve also studied the process of getting to the Affordable Care Act and know how much business has invested in complying with the law, and that many insurers and health care systems have found real positives, such as adding new insured individuals to their rolls. That doesn’t make the ACA perfect. What law is perfect? It was such a milestone to get health insurance for most Americans. I hope we don’t lose all that coverage.

On another topic that divides Americans, Pew Research Center has conducted a number of surveys of the public on climate change. Their spring 2015 survey found that people around the world are concerned about climate change and want their governments to take action. Among key findings, the poll indicated:

Majorities in all 40 nations polled said climate change is a serious problem, and a global median of 54% believe it is a very serious problem. Still, the intensity of concern varies substantially across regions and nations. Latin Americans and sub-Saharan Africans are particularly worried about climate change. Americans and Chinese, whose countries have the highest overall carbon dioxide emissions, are less concerned.

I’ve seen people evolve and change their positions on the topic as they have been exposed to data (and abnormal weather conditions), but there are many who still believe that climate change is a hoax, or who remain unconvinced of its seriousness, and they’re not going to change just because I tell them they’re wrong.

I believe there is an important role for public health professionals to be honest brokers in fostering productive, non-judgmental conversations about critical topics, such as climate change. At the Gillings School, we teach community-engaged research and practice, a fundamental principle of which is respect for the diverse experiences, perspectives and needs of all. In health behavior, there is an old saying, “Start where the people are.” Clearly, people in this country aren’t all in the same place. Yet the stakes regarding health care, climate change and other public health challenges are high. If there is real climate change – and the vast majority of scientists, as well as 65 percent of Americans, now agree there is – then the prudent response is to take action to mitigate possible harm. We need to learn how to discuss these issues in ways that encourage people to become involved without having their worldviews threatened. We must be better listeners. We welcome any ideas about how to make these conversations happen. Regardless of how happy or unhappy we are, we must talk and then we must act. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines.

Whomever one wanted to win the election, we have a country that must be brought together, and there are urgent public health issues to be addressed. We can help. In our Gillings community, there also is a lot of pain, sadness and fear. We’ve heard that some of our international students are getting calls from anxious parents who want them to return home. We want every one of our students to stay, to be safe and to feel wanted here, and we will keep talking with them to learn what they need.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.