At last week’s Anchorage Assembly meeting, a group of doctors and nurses testified about the current COVID-19 crisis in our city’s hospitals and pleaded for local government to take action to protect public health. Their testimony, though forceful, was not unique per se; the medical professionals advocated for the same measures — such as masks, vaccination and social distancing — that public health officials worldwide have recommended for many months.
The reaction to the testimony, however, was remarkable. Members of the audience openly booed and jeered. Assemblymember Jamie Allard repeatedly asked the doctors and nurses whether they were withholding “alternative” treatments from their COVID-19 patients, allowing patients to needlessly suffer or die in order to “promote the vaccine.” The next day, Alaska’s most widely-read conservative blog published an article titled “Medical theater: Doctors, nurses coordinate with liberal Assembly to intimidate community over vaccines.” Readers left dozens of comments accusing the medical professionals of lying, withholding effective medical treatments, and deliberately hurting or killing their patients.
We believe Tuesday’s events represent a new and deeply disturbing phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in Anchorage. Our local medical providers have worked tirelessly and put their lives on the line to care for those affected by COVID-19. They showed up to work during the early stages of the pandemic, despite a lack of personal protective equipment and grave unknowns, and they were among the first to volunteer for vaccination. They are now working overtime to contain an immense surge of largely-preventable COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths while struggling with severe stress and burnout. The movement to demonize medical workers at this critical time is appalling and wrong, and the insinuation that medical providers are deliberately killing their patients or withholding any proven treatments — from a sitting member of the Assembly, no less — is abhorrent.
In some ways, what we witnessed Tuesday is the inevitable byproduct of months of rampant conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID-19 spread by individuals, media and politicians. Conspiracy theorists have falsely alleged COVID-19 is not harmful, it can easily be cured with existing drugs, and that COVID-19 vaccines cause grave harms. Some falsely claim that COVID-19 does not even exist, or that the pandemic was never real in the first place. On the campaign trail, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson stated that he was not sure “if there was a pandemic” in Anchorage.
Make no mistake: The idea that nearly every government around the world, along with tens of millions of doctors, researchers, and other medical workers, is colluding in a murderous conspiracy that has no readily apparent goal is a mass delusion. But faced with the reality of Anchorage hospitals overflowing with COVID-19 patients and pleas from local medical providers, those who engage in this delusion have chosen not to challenge their own beliefs, but rather to make Anchorage’s medical providers — our friends, neighbors and family members — the villains of a dangerous fantasy.
This demonization of medical workers has real-world consequences. It discourages people from seeking necessary care until it is too late. It also reduces the likelihood that people will receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which exhaustive research shows is extremely safe and effective. Moreover, turning people against local medical workers has consequences for the workers themselves. The 2018-19 Ebola outbreak in the Congo provides one real-world example of what can happen when unchecked conspiracy theories convince people that deadly diseases are not real and that medical providers are the enemy.
Beginning in 2018, rumors spread in the Congo region that deaths caused by a major Ebola outbreak were not the result of the virus but by murderous aid workers. In multiple instances, armed militiamen stormed medical facilities and killed medical personnel, including WHO health worker Dr. Richard Kiboung. According to Patrick Tsiko, the deputy mayor of Butembo, DRC, “these militiamen wanted all the expatriates to go home because according to them, Ebola does not exist in Butembo.” In other instances, medical workers were kidnapped and tortured, and medical equipment was set on fire. The attacks on medical workers and destruction of equipment severely impacted the medical community’s ability to respond to the Ebola outbreak, which devastated local communities and ultimately claimed thousands of lives.
Though there seems little chance of open violence happening here, a vocal minority in Anchorage is already engaging in disturbing speech against medical providers. Readers of the aforementioned popular conservative blog have shared dozens of public comments claiming that local doctors and nurses are violating their Hippocratic oaths, ignoring “cures” for COVID and killing patients. One comment read, “Give people the meds we know work and quit allowing people to die. U are murderers.” Another read, “Hospitals have become K1ll zones because they refuse to use the right medicine and save people.” One claimed, “people are worth more dead than alive… follow the $$$.” Another bluntly said, “Keep it up and you become the enemy!” One asked for the names of the doctors and nurses who testified at the Assembly meeting.
Make no mistake: This is the type of language that justifies and precedes violence. And it has no place in our community. It is impossible to know whether every commenter actually believes what he or she writes, but we have no interest in finding out. This is not a path that our community should be going down.
We urge everyone in Anchorage to stand behind our local medical workers as they go through what is, in most cases, the hardest time in their professional careers. Medical workers are not above criticism, but when they work around-the-clock following highly validated medical practices to save lives during a pandemic, they deserve our sincere support. The medical providers that we know personally are compassionate and hardworking, and when they admit publicly that they are having difficulty managing their caseloads, we believe them. We also urge politicians, media and individuals to stop spreading false information about COVID-19 and cease the reprehensible vilification of members of the Anchorage medical community. After all, statistics suggest that those who engage in COVID-19 conspiracy theories and demonize medical workers will be the ones most likely to need their help.
Paxson Woelber is an Anchorage multimedia expert who has worked on over two dozen Republican political campaigns. He owns two Anchorage businesses and serves as the Special Features Editor for the Alaska Landmine.
Dr. Daniel Volland is a licensed Optometric Physician and small business owner in Anchorage. He currently serves as Vice President of the South Addition Community Council.
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