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Take a slice out of civic health this holiday season

Associated Press/Matt Rourke

As we endure our second holiday season of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re reflective of what it means to be together and to be part of a community. It is becoming more apparent that we have entered an endemic and that there always will be an imminent threat of another outbreak lurking around the corner. 

Let’s take the latest omicron variant, which has put the world on edge. While scientists say there is reason to be concerned, there is still a lot that we don’t know, including whether the variant is more contagious (all signs point in this direction), or what its effects on vaccine efficacy may be. 

What we do know is that vaccine uptake will certainly bring us closer to herd immunity and closer to eliminating the virus’s ability to mutate and create variants. Despite continued efforts from experts pointing to data in support of science on critical issues, science denialism has been a clear theme of the past two years, with misinformation and disinformation a consistent backdrop of the pandemic and the roll-out of its corresponding vaccine. 

Quite frankly, I’m tired of the science naysayers. As a researcher and health care leader at an academic institution responsible for propelling discovery and innovation forward, I call upon my fellow citizens to think about their civic duty — more specifically, your public health civic duty.  Health shouldn’t be something that individuals choose to “opt-out” of depending on their personal views. Let’s boldly opt-in. 

Supporting science and the scientific process is an element of civic engagement. Just like volunteering in your community, civic participation brings people together to form a collective voice to cultivate positive change in their communities. I propose that a similar mindset be applied to public health to improve the conditions that dictate health and well-being for all. Health civic engagement, including advocacy, can guide government decisions about health issues. 

A part of health civic engagement is understanding the scientific process, which involves gathering evidence and potentially needing to revisit conclusions to come up with more effective ones. For example, our understanding of how the SARS-CoV2 virus passes from human to human has evolved and, with that evolution, public health recommendations and guidance have adapted. This change in thinking means that the scientific process works: We adapt our understanding based on evidence. 

I want to motivate everyone — even that cranky relative we all seem to have — to participate in the best interests of their community by building a culture of health engagement. Individuals should look at sound, evidence-based data and accept expert guidance accordingly. I also believe that people should challenge the science community in a constructive way when needs go unmet. Communities with more trust, civic engagement and tighter networks thrive compared to their fragmented counterparts, especially after a crisis such as the one we continue to experience with no real end in sight.

This erosion of trust around science and a weakened sense of responsibility to our community leaves us short of achieving herd immunity through vaccination. As a result, the health of our country remains suboptimal. To promote health for all, we must engage all stakeholders in this process, starting with our youngest activists and citizens of a democratic society, our children. Encouraging young people to feel a sense of responsibility towards their neighbors and being active in the community is important for promoting lifelong civic participation.

As a public health practitioner, I focus on an individuals’ sense of community and promote investments in community health that may lead to greater health equity. As we gather with friends and family for the holidays, say that you are grateful for the science that gave us a powerful vaccine and continues to save many lives. If someone doesn’t agree, try to understand where they are coming from, find some common ground and then focus on inspirational examples that support the science of vaccines. If all else fails, agree that community health should become a priority again. Be sure to leave the door open for more conversations.   

The stress from COVID-19, the current economy and divisive politics can put a strain on any holiday season. Still, we can all do our part in having productive, conflict-free conversations, even when there are ideological divides in your family. While you may not always be successful in your attempts to reason with others, the effort alone makes it worthwhile.

Keep these tips in mind throughout the holidays — and beyond. It’s the best thing you can do to defend science and foster healthy, caring relationships with those around you. Take a slice out of civic health engagement this holiday season, and eat the pie, too. 

Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, DrPH, is the director and founding dean of the program in public health in the Susan & Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. 

Tags Civic engagement Community building Health equity Public health Vaccine

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