In mid-March, as the coronavirus outbreak just started hitting Michigan, 2018 Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Dr. Abdul El-Sayed was preparing for a soon-to-be-canceled book tour to promote his memoir-cum-manifesto, Healing Politics. The book covers a broad range of topics, from the Islamophobic death threats he endured during the campaign to how he then rose to prominence as a 2020 Bernie Sanders surrogate. But it also describes his journey away from early aspirations of being a surgeon and toward epidemiology, the branch of medicine focused on the spread of disease and contagion. That’s what led him to return to his native Michigan as Detroit’s health commissioner in 2015 and then to launch his political career. That expertise is increasingly relevant in this time of COVID-19, so Hour Detroit quizzed the good doctor, who became a regular CNN commentator in March, about the unfolding pandemic and the politics around it.
Hour Detroit: As we speak, the first cases are just emerging in Michigan. Where is the country, the state, the economy, the health of the public going to be by late April or early May?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: We’re at the edge of the storm. It’s going to be bad news now for some time. I’m heartened by the fact that once the government and civil society decided to take this seriously, things moved in the right direction, but it took too long. An epidemic is like fighting a fire: You can nip it out when it’s small, or you can fight it when it’s an inferno. We let it get to an inferno.
Who suffers the worst burns in this inferno?
The folks who survive on the ragged edge of the economy, working gigs. Lyft drivers or freelancers, people working hourly wages, folks in the restaurant who wash dishes. And the small businesses that have to shut their doors because of social distancing. We’re facing a really serious whole-of-society challenge.
How does this relate the “epidemic of insecurity” you write about?
You’ve got so many people who are sitting on the edge of society and something like this happened and they fell off. It’s devastating. And it’s something we could have avoided.
Really? Some people think this is just a natural disaster.
There’s a big difference between a hazard and a disaster. Yes, it is a virus. That’s the hazard. But the fact that that virus spread all over the world and that we were so deeply unprepared for it, that’s the disaster, and that’s human-made. It’s the consequences of our systematic disinvestment in government, the fact that the economy is more unequal than it has been in nearly 100 years, and that we are unwilling to finally pass a universal national health insurance program. Throwing your hands up and saying, “Well, we couldn’t have seen this coming” is absurd. All of us saw it coming and kept pointing at it.
You could have been the governor of Michigan right now. How is the state doing?
I don’t want to be the guy sitting on the sidelines pointing to what folks are doing poorly. They’re working really hard. Obviously, I have a different level of expertise. A lot of the things I would be doing, they’ve done. It’s been interesting watching on Twitter. I’ll say, “Look, this is what we need to do,” and the next day, it’s being done. I’m not saying I’m why. I’m saying the leadership has been really responsive to calls for action. I just hope public officials take heed of what left us vulnerable and seek to be proactive to make sure something like this never happens again.
The idea that 10% of our population don’t have access to health care is a huge vulnerability in a global pandemic. Low-income workers and small businesses suffer because we have chosen in this state and country to subsidize corporations to the tune of billions of dollars a year, and that makes us more vulnerable.
By the time this comes out, will everything still be shut down?
Yes. Highly likely. Looking at how this developed and watching what happened in every other country that’s been hit by it, people need to tuck in and be ready for this. The incubation period on this virus is 14 days. That means what you do today, you won’t know the effect of for 14 days. When you think about that kind of time horizon, you realize this will take a while.