opinion   |   coronavirus

OPINION: Congress must criminalize public health malpractice to hold governors accountable



oppublichealthmalpractice072020

Vehicles line up July 19 at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing center at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. Tribune News Service

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is playing political hardball, aiming recklessly for the livelihoods of Americans. In response to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ mask mandate requiring face coverings in public spaces, Kemp took to the courts and filed suit to stop the mandate from taking effect.

Kemp’s clear desire to pursue his own political agenda at the expense of his state’s health directly contradicts the data supporting the use of face coverings in public. Kemp’s lawsuit against Bottoms is a blatant exhibition of public health malpractice and only exacerbates the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to spread like wildfire through the U.S.

Public health malpractice is a loosely defined concept that describes the failure of public officials to provide care amid a public health emergency. David J. Scheffer, an American lawyer and diplomat, explores this concept in a Council on Foreign Relations Article. He explains that the term public health malpractice “has generally been confined to medical literature and narrowly described as akin to medical malpractice. The time has arrived to broaden its application to account for the administration of public health during pandemics.”

Scheffer’s analysis demonstrates the urgent need for Congress to codify public health malpractice in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. By criminalizing public health malpractice and imposing strict punishment on those who directly impede efforts to quell COVID-19, public officials will have an obligation to act according to science and data and to work to institute efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

The absence of law criminalizing public health malpractice, however, provides President Donald Trump, Gov. Kemp and those who follow their lead with an open opportunity to pursue personal and political agendas at the expense of public health and safety. 

Trump’s efforts to reduce Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding, Kemp’s politically charged lawsuit against Bottoms and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ refusal to close bars and gyms amid climbing cases of COVID-19 directly attack public health and undermine the advice of medical and scientific experts.

Public officials attacking public health must be held criminally responsible for their actions. Congress needs to act immediately to criminalize public health malpractice and to hold the president and the governors spoon-fed by the president accountable. The health, economic security and future of this country depend on it.

James Bassett (he/him) is a senior studying political science at Indiana University and is the deputy national communications director for the College Democrats of America.

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