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When Populist Politics Hurt Public Health

Published on 6. April 2020, 11:13 h
Bielefeld researchers call attention to scientists experiencing political repression in the journal Science

The World Health Day, which is held on 7 April is meant to highlight the importance of healthcare and disease prevention around the world. In many countries, however, these public health objectives are under threat. Researchers from Bielefeld University diagnosed this problem in a recent Letter to the Editor published in the journal Science. As argued by the research team, the Coronavirus crisis lays bare just how essential evidence-based research is – and how dangerous it is for public health when information on disease from scientists and medical professionals becomes subject to political repression. 

‘Health is a human right, not something that is bound to certain characteristics of a group of people,’ says Prof. Dr. Oliver Razum. The public health scientist advocates for independent public health research. Photo: Bielefeld University
‘Health is a human right, not something that is bound to certain characteristics of a group of people,’ says Prof. Dr. Oliver Razum. The public health scientist advocates for independent public health research. Photo: Bielefeld University
The ‘Letter to the Editor’ published in Science is titled ‘Public health scientists in the crosshairs of populists,’ and it was penned by Lisa Wandschneider, Dr. Yudit Namer, and Professor Dr. Oliver Razum, all of whom are members of Bielefeld University’s School of Public Health. The commentary was written in response to a previously published editorial in which H. Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of Science, argues that scientists ought to get involved in the political arena. The Bielefeld public health researchers agree with him, noting however, that political action is not always possible, especially for scientists under threat of political repression. In the case of the Corona crisis, the researchers point to the story of Li Wenliang, the Chinese physician from Wuhan who in December 2019 used a group chat to alert former medical school classmates to the disease that would later be recognized as Covid-19. Officials forced him to sign a letter of admonition for ‘making false comments on the Internet’ and barred him from speaking about the disease under threat of prosecution. Tragically, Dr. Li Wenliang later died of Covid-19, the very disease for which he sounded the alarm.

Fundamental Rights Being Restricted for Researchers Around the Globe
From September 2018 – August 2019, the advocacy network ‘Scholars at Risk’ recorded a total of 324 attacks on scientists. ‘In this era of populist movements and “alternative facts,” we are seeing that doubt is increasingly being cast on scientific evidence. Scholars are attacked when they advocate for and disseminate evidence-based findings,’ says Professor Dr. Oliver Razum, who is the head of the ‘Epidemiology & International Public Health’ work group and serves as dean of the School of Public Health. Prof. Dr. Razum and his colleagues investigate how health and disease are distributed in populations, and how health can be promoted. With their comments in their ‘Letter to the Editor’ in Science, the researchers aimed to raise awareness of the problems faced in the field of public health when it comes to communicating scientific information to the public.  

In another example, the researchers cited the conviction of Dr. Bülent Şık, a food engineer who reported his research findings on food contamination in Turkey. In September 2019, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison. ‘Political decisions that are not made based on scientific evidence have far-reaching, negative consequences for public health,’ says Lisa Wandschneider, who is the lead author of the ‘Letter to the Editor’ and a colleague of Prof. Dr. Razum. ‘This is why public health scientists in particular must actively speak out against this – without having their freedom and autonomy be restricted.’

When Populist Politics Impact Public Health
As observed by the researchers, populist attitudes have now permeated all democratic societies. Populist appeals often delineate a supposedly homogeneous ‘we’ that stands in opposition to others (‘them’). These claims are thus based on nationalistic ideologies, not on scientific evidence. ‘Populist ideologies are contrary to our basic ethical understanding,’ says Razum. ‘Health is a human right, not something that is bound to certain characteristics of a group of people.’ 

According to the Bielefeld researchers, the negative effects of populism on the health of certain groups in the population can be seen around the world, including in the United States, in Germany, and in other European countries. As a result of this trend, immigrant women often have a harder time accessing healthcare, and access to birth control and safe abortion services are also restricted for women. But the entire population can also suffer under populist politics: ‘It affects the health of us all when healthcare systems collapse during war, as in Syria, and when climate change caused by human activity is actively denied, as in the United States,” explains Razum.

Working to Protect Academic Freedom
‘We consider it extremely important that scientific research is – and remains – independent. With our response to the science editorial, we wanted to make this message heard as widely as possible in our discipline of public health,’ says Razum. The Bielefeld researchers’ letter to the editor was met with positive reactions, including a response from public health scientists in the U.S. state of Colorado. In addition to this work, the Bielefeld researchers also signed and disseminated an open letter in support of Dr. Bülent Şık. ‘As long as governments fail to protect scientists, we have to work together as a community to advocate for academic freedom,’ explains co-author Dr. Yudi Namer.

On the whole, Razum, Wandschneider, and Namer do have hope. In Turkey, various solidarity initiatives are forming: academic researchers who have been dismissed from their posts are organizing lectures, seminars, and workshop in public spaces outside of the university. ‘This shows how academic freedom can exist in different ways, and how structural attacks cannot stifle science,’ says Namer. ‘It is our hope that scholarship is not a privilege, but rather something that is accessible to everyone.’  

More information:

Prof. Dr. Oliver Razum, Bielefeld University
School of Public Health
Phone: +49 521 106-3837
Email: oliver.razum@uni-bielefeld.de

Posted by JHeeren in General

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