I recently read “The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams which got me thinking about the way our societal views on doctors, nurses, and medicine have evolved in the months since Covid first appeared in the United States. Although this isn’t the fist time in recent memory where a distrust for medicine has infiltrated the popular conversation, see the anti-vaccination movement, this shift in perception has been much more widespread. William Carlos Williams manages to explore the relationship between doctors and patients and examine the way our perception of medical professionals influences the way we interact with them. This piece by Williams was written in 1938 but seems particularly relevant in light of the this last year’s events.
In William’s piece, the doctor views the little girl, his patient, negatively. Though at times his anger towards the girl seems poetic, “After all, I had already fallen in love with the savage brat, the parents were contemptible to me”, the little girl’s refusal to comply with the Doctor’s demands denotes to her to a place of savagery. I’m sure her contempt is frustrating for the doctor who hope to diagnose and treat her, lest she too fall victim to diphtheria. In contrast, the parent’s are much more trusting of the doctor and his recommendations than their daughter is. I think it’s worth noting that the girl’s refusal to comply likely resulted from her fear that the diagnosis and treatment might be unpleasant. Was her “brattiness” intentional or was it motivated by fear and misunderstanding?
And what about the doctor? He justifies his use of excessive force by saying that the girl must be protected against her own stupidity. In a way the doctor is justified because the diagnosis is crucial to ensure that her condition doesn’t turn fatal. Yet, at the same time the reader is struck by how savage the doctor seems. Although his actions end up being justified, as the girl is in fact suffering from diphtheria, envisioning the harsh path he took to get to a diagnosis seems extreme.
I bring this up because it seems like our opinions on doctors and science, particularly now during the Covid outbreak, are reliant on our perception. Do fear and misunderstanding negatively color the way we perceive doctors? Do fear and misunderstanding inspire some people to disregard the explicit opinions of trained medical professionals in exchange for fear tactics and conspiracy theories? Or are we like the doctor in the story, denoting those who refuse to believe in medicine to savagery and stupidity? I think these questions are important, particularly now because Covid has been weaponized by both sides of the political aisle. Conservatives tend to lean toward denial or conspiracy to negate the seriousness of the virus. Yet the other extreme has resulted feelings of anxiety as those who recognize the virus as a valid crisis fear the repercussion of our current administrations lax approach to containing it.
Whereas I began this pandemic thinking we were all like the little girl’s parents, inherently trustful of doctors and their specialized education, I’m finding that most people are colored by the same contempt and doubt the little girl displayed. Perhaps this distrust of science, failure to comply to medical advice, and well of misinformation is a result of our country’s leadership. The Trump administration has been harshly criticized for their response to Covid, which has ranged from denial of it’s existence, to outright disregard for the recommendations made by medical experts. The New York Times reported on a landmark editorial by the New England Journal of Medicine, which condemned Trump’s response to Covid: “In the United States, the journal said, there was too little testing for the virus, especially early on. There was too little protective equipment, and a lack of national leadership on important measures like mask wearing, social distancing, quarantine and isolation.”
The combined effect of fear, misinformation, and lack of solid leadership has resulted in an unignorable health crisis. Despite the loss of nearly 300,000 American lives and the advice from medical professionals urging the public to wear PPE, stay home as much as possible, and limit contact with others, the general public seems unwilling to comply. Although it seems that the public opinion on federal and state mandated lock downs has been negative, I have to wonder if this is the the “Use of Force” which Williams was talking about. Is it worth it for officials to do something which the public is actively fighting against, forcing a lock down, if it means containing the spread of a virus which threatens their lives?
By: Danielle Flores