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April 8, 2021 12:30 pm

Can Yom HaShoah Affect the Ways We Think About Medical Ethics?

avatar by Ira Bedzow and Stacy Gallin


Residents of Lima, Ohio receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo: Reuters/Megan Jelinger.

We are living in the time of the “Fauci Effect.” This is not the experience of turning on the television and being bombarded with medical terms. Nor is it the feeling we get when we debate public health strategies, as if we are epidemiologists. Importantly, it is not the emotion of love or hate that comes rising to the surface when we see someone walking down the street wearing a mask or flaunting their exposed face.

The “Fauci Effect” is the recent phenomenon where medical school applications have jumped by as much as 20%, despite the fact that it is harder than ever to be a medical professional. The “Fauci Effect” demonstrates the desire of members of Generations S and Z to be heroes — health care heroes.

As we approach Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGevurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day), it seems that to some people, remembering the heroism that people demonstrated during the Holocaust has greater relevance than the atrocities. People want to be inspired. They want to speak against power, and feel empowered themselves. Fewer and fewer people are interested in stories of other people’s victimization, and other genocides compete with the Holocaust for attention.

This is dangerous.

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While it is important to inspire people to do good, it is equally important to learn how to avoid evil. It is not enough to learn how to fight injustice. We must equally learn how to recognize when language and systems are structured in such a way to hide injustice in plain sight. One cannot fight an evil one doesn’t see.

For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the great importance of public health. It has also shown us the dangers of politicizing public health.

One great lesson we should all consider this year on Yom HaShoah is that the “success” of the Holocaust was that it was framed as a public health campaign. The perversion of language that made the Nazis so powerful was that they conflated biological/medical priorities and social/political ideologies.

Their goal was to improve population health by eradicating disease and infirmity. The health of the nation was the supreme value and objective of the state and its populace. The Nazis tried to achieve this goal through genocide and forced sterilization of people deemed unfit, whether due to disability, ethnicity, race, or political nonconformity.

Despite the fact that German medical schools set the standard of excellence for medical training at the time, and the German medical profession had strong codes of ethics, physicians were the largest professional group to join the Nazi Party, and were a driving force behind the Holocaust. Did German physicians experience the opposite of the “Fauci Effect,” or did they believe that they were also health care heroes?

As COVID-19 cases grew to pandemic proportions, we saw divisions arise in society that were — that are — deeply concerning. Whether these divisions pertained to resource allocation protocols, social determinants of health, or simply racism, many if not all of these divisions were justified by medical or public health terminology. The media also used battlefield terminology when describing efforts to stave off a virus, when, in actuality, we have been working to heal members of our community. The framing is important. Health is not war, and public health should not be politicized.

We must learn from history, lest we repeat it. Sometimes that means exploring our darkest times and realizing that we are not so different from those that came before us.

As we commemorate Yom Hashoah, we must remember what can happen when political or social constructs are used to discriminate and divide us. Understanding the ways in which basic ethical principles were distorted by outside forces can help us recognize when we are doing the same thing all over again.

The responsibility of remembering our shared past, experiencing our shared present, and protecting our shared future belongs to all of us because we are all members of humankind. One day, when we tell our grandchildren about this unprecedented time in history, we want to pass down a story of unity, not division. We want to remember not only the heroes who fought against injustice, but also those who didn’t allow injustice to arise in the first place.

Ira Bedzow, Ph.D., is associate professor of medicine and UNESCO Chair of Bioethics at New York Medical College (NYMC). He is also Senior Scholar of the Aspen Center for Social Values, an educational consultant for MIMEH, a contributor at the MirYam Institute, and a regular contributor in Forbes for their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion section. 

Stacy Gallin, D.M.H., is the Founding Director of the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust. She is also a Visiting Assistant Professor at New York Medical College in the Biomedical Ethics and Humanities program.  Dr. Gallin is the Co-Chair of the Department of Bioethics and the Holocaust of the UNESCO Chair of Bioethics (Haifa) and a faculty member for the Department of Education of the UNESCO Chair of Bioethics. 

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