(CNN)The New England Journal of Medicine is, as the name suggests, mostly focused on, well, medicine. Which makes what it published this week all the more important and impactful.
In an editorial titled “Dying in a Leadership Vacuum,” the editors of the Journal blasted President Donald Trump (although not by name) for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s the key bit:
“Anyone else who recklessly squandered lives and money in this way would be suffering legal consequences. Our leaders have largely claimed immunity for their actions. But this election gives us the power to render judgment. Reasonable people will certainly disagree about the many political positions taken by candidates. But truth is neither liberal nor conservative. When it comes to the response to the largest public health crisis of our time, our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent. We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.”
That would be powerful stuff even if the New England Journal of Medicine regularly weighed in on politics. Which it does not. In fact, it rarely published editorials signed as this one was, by all of its editors. As CNN’s Jacqueline Howard noted, there have been only four previous editorials signed by all of the editors in the more than 200-year history of the Journal. None of those four previous editorials were about presidential politics — or politics at all.
And, the New England Journal of Medicine isn’t some fly-by-night organization. It was founded in 1812(!) by John Collins Warren, a doctor and an academic. It was the first medical journal published in New England. It has continued to be one of the most sought-after places for innovative and important medical research to be published. “Our mission is to publish the best research and information at the intersection of biomedical science and clinical practice and to present this information in understandable, clinically useful formats that inform health care delivery and improve patient outcomes,” reads the NEJM website.
So, when the editors of such a prestigious medical journal feel the need to break with their 200-plus year tradition of not weighing in on presidential politics, we need to pay attention. Especially when they conclude things like the Trump administration has “taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy” and “the magnitude of this failure is astonishing.” (Worth noting: The editors never explicitly endorse former Vice President Joe Biden in their piece.)
To be clear: This editorial will not change most peoples’ minds about the presidential election. For Trump backers, they will dismiss it as the work of a bunch of academic elitists who never liked Trump anyway. For Trump detractors, this editorial will simply be a(nother) data point in their case for why Trump should be voted out in 26 days’ time.
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The point is that maybe it should change peoples’ minds. Because we are dealing with more than 7.5 million Americans infected with Covid-19 (including the President) and nearly 211,000 dead. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday that “the models tell us that if we do not do the kinds of things that we’re talking about in the cold of the fall and the winter, we could have from 300,000 to 400,000 deaths.”
This is a massive crisis. It has already cost us so much — in terms of lives lost and jobs gone. Not to mention the psychological toll. And the impact on kids of learning virtually for months.
There is no question that Trump’s slow response to the crisis, his administration’s struggle to expand testing capacity, his advocacy of unproven treatments and his skepticism about mask-wearing have had a decidedly negative impact on how Americans have dealt with the pandemic.
That is not political. That is fact. And it’s because of those facts that people and institutions that have never been political before — like the New England Journal of medicine — feel compelled to speak out about just how not normal this all is.