President-elect Joe Biden has appointed a local Jewish doctor and public health expert to his coronavirus task force.
Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel is an oncologist, bioethicist, vice provost for global initiatives and chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author and editor of several books, his writing has appeared widely in news outlets and he previously worked with President Barack Obama as one of the main creators of the Affordable Care Act.
“Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most important battles our administration will face, and I will be informed by science and by experts,” said President-elect Biden in a statement. “The advisory board will help shape my approach to managing the surge in reported infections; ensuring vaccines are safe, effective, and distributed efficiently, equitably, and free; and protecting at-risk populations.”
Coronavirus cases have exploded in the United States over the past several weeks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported almost 11 million cases and more than 245,000 deaths in the country as of Nov. 16.
State and local governments are beginning to implement new regulations on businesses and gatherings as the case count climbs. On Nov. 16, the City of Philadelphia announced new “Safer at Home” restrictions effective from Nov. 20, 2020, through Jan. 1, 2021. Museums, theaters and gyms must close, restaurants can no longer offer indoor dining and schools must move to online-only instruction. Private indoor gatherings with members of more than one household are also prohibited.
In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Emanuel called for consistent public health messaging to battle the pandemic. “You need everyone in government on one page,” Emanuel told the Inquirer, “and you need to repeat the message often.”
He also advocated for a depoliticized public health care message that placed scientists and public health officials at the forefront, widespread testing and contact tracing, funding from Congress, and transparent policies that would build public trust and convince people to get a vaccine once it becomes available.
He emphasized the need for a centralized strategy and cooperation among the states.
“You need coordination at the center, at the White House, when you are coordinating many government agencies and private companies,” he told the Inquirer. (Emanuel declined to be interviewed for this story.)
David Agus, CEO of the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine and a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California, said Emanuel’s background in bioethics will come into play as the committee considers some of the most important medical questions of our time.
“How do we decide who gets what treatments or vaccines, and what is the order?” he said. “Do we want to vaccinate people of color because they have a higher risk of complications? The elderly? Health care workers? Those are very important decisions that need broad perspective. And what I think Zeke brings to the committee is that broad perspective, which is really critical.”
Emanuel’s appointment has been controversial due to a 2014 article he published in The Atlantic in which he declared he did not want to live past 75 and plans to refuse life-prolonging medical procedures like cancer screenings and vaccines once he reaches that age. He critiqued Americans’ obsession with living as long as possible.
Death is a loss, he allowed, but so is living too long.
“It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, and the world,” he wrote.
Emanuel’s comments about disability and quality of life ignited a Twitter storm and rankled activists such as Kristan Hawkins, president of pro-life organization Students for Life, and Elizabeth Land Quant, a queer, disabled writer.
The controversy was also covered in major news outlets, including Fox News, Newsweek and The Daily Mail. Louise Hall wrote in The Independent, “Many Republicans criticized the views Dr Emanuel expressed … and argued it raised questions about his position on the government advisory board.”
Among those GOP critics were White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnaney and Sen. Tom Cotton.
Agus does not agree with Emanuel’s ideas about the value of old age, but said his statements were intended to create a national conversation about aging and end-of-life care.
“Zeke Emanuel is a remarkable thinker and a fantastic instigator of ideas. In order to get an understanding, you need discourse, and he is good at writing inflammatory statements that will create discourse,” he said. “Do I think he really believes that at age 75, he’d like to go to sleep and not wake up? No, not at all. I think he just wanted to create discourse around the ideas, which he did, and that was powerful and I respect him for that.”