2021 Starts: Where were you on January 6, 2021?Jan 11, 2021
History imprints us indelibly with momentous events and the days when they happened. Some dates are remembered because of tragedies; annually we note these dates and remember the event and where we were at the moment. November 22, 1963: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—I was in a lab session for a college inorganic chemistry course with my lab partner, a now lifelong friend; and September 11, 2001: terrorist hijackings of airplanes—in a retreat at Johns Hopkins doing strategic planning. And, there are dates remembered because boundaries were extended: July 20, 1969: Neil Armstrong lands on the moon—on a medical student rotation in London.
And now, January 6, 2021: our Capitol desecrated by a violent mob—in zoom meetings during a pandemic, at home. This event, fueled by mistruths about the election outcome and more, will not be forgotten by anyone who saw it. Putting politics aside, what lessons for public health come from this tragedy? Let’s start with the demonstrated power of misinformation and its spread. The event was motivated by persistent and baseless claims from President Trump and others about election fraud. The mistruths were echoed within social groups and the falsehoods amplified. Crosslinks among networks brought together QAnon believers, white supremacists, and more. The mob and its behavior reflect the success of networks in spreading information and ideas, whether false or true, and motivating shared action based on a commonality of purpose, even if wrongfully motivated.
I have previously mentioned Adam Kucharski’s book, The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread—and Why They Stop. Kucharski starts with a description of how epidemics spread and then extends the infectious disease models to “viral spread.” We have seen the seeding and persistence of many falsehoods, and now this extraordinary consequence: a mob invading the Capitol and bringing the certification of the Electoral College votes to a halt. Public health researchers and practitioners recognize the power of networks for disseminating messages, whether promoting public health or countering misleading messaging. Misleading messaging has diminished key public health measures for limiting the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and threatens vaccination programs.
Structural racism was placed on the public health agenda more firmly after the senseless death of George Floyd and other Black, indigenous, and people of color. The mob at the Capitol was frightening in its white supremacy and anti-Semitism and a stark reminder of the persistence of racism. The faces of the mob were mostly white and all of the tropes of white supremacy were there: a man wearing a Camp Auschwitz shirt, a Confederate flag paraded through the Capitol, and a gallows placed outside with a noose. Additionally, many have commented on the seeming differential handling of the mob by the Capitol Police compared with the often brutal responses of police to Black Lives Matter protestors. One further comparison: the clearing of protestors for President Trump’s amble to St. John’s Episcopal for a photo-op with a bible; for that walk, a calm protest was dispersed with tear gas and riot control measures. The skin color of protestors appears to matter. We will learn more as the January 6 events are autopsied and re-autopsied.
Pundits commented that the mob invasion of the Capitol and related political events played out even as the COVID-19 pandemic reached record levels in the country and vaccination proceeded at a snail-like pace, far slower than the announced and targeted rate. A tragic milestone was passed on Friday, January 8: more than 4,000 deaths in a day from COVID-19. And, California can no longer handle its patient load as intensive care units are fully occupied and oxygen is in short supply. With the incoming Biden-Harris administration, I hope for greater attention and competence in managing the pandemic. It is needed.
We are fortunate with the status of the pandemic in Colorado, perhaps reflecting the needed adherence of Coloradans to transmission control measures. Since early December, the epidemic curve has continuously declined and the number hospitalized now is less than half of the peak in early December and below the April peak. But, we still do not know if there will be a surge from the December holidays, and the Governor has moved 22 counties from Level Red to Level Orange and some schools are reopening. For now, and until enough Coloradans are vaccinated, all of us need to stick with the same and now well-known litany of transmission-control measures.
Happy New Year, and I look forward to my first note in 2022—in a COVID-19 free Colorado.