The executive director of Harvard’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Natalia Linos, is a social epidemiologist who has been involved in policy throughout her career, but who probably wouldn’t be running for Congress if it wasn’t for Covid-19.
In an interview with Kathimerini, she explains that the pandemic has turned health into a political issue, forcing scientists like her to take a stance – in her case, to run for Massachusetts’ Fourth Congressional District.
Having warned that the US is not well positioned to tackle the epidemic due to social inequalities and anti-immigrant sentiment, her campaign is focused on a science and equity platform that she attributes to her religious, moral-based Greek upbringing. A mom of three young children, she aspires to unite the Greek-American community and promises to be a strong ally and advocate for human rights in US foreign policy and for solidarity in tackling the global pandemic.
What prompted you to run for Congress?
I have been in the front lines of global politics at the United Nations for a decade and I have worked for some of the most impressive female leaders, including former prime minister of New Zealand Helen Clark and former vice president of Costa Rica Rebecca Greenspan. I was their speechwriter, adviser and special assistant, so these accomplished women served as role models and mentors for me. So this is not the first time that I thought about a political career, but my greater interest was making an impact in the policies of countries and I felt that through the UN work and advice to ministers and government I could have the same impact without going to elected politics.
During Covid, in particular, scientists have been under attack and we have seen the White House intentionally trying to discredit Dr Anthony Fauci, giving a list of his alleged mistakes or miscommunications since the beginning – when we actually didn’t know much about the disease – twisting his words, giving half-quotes. So the reason that I am running for office as a scientist is that if you elect people like Dr Fauci, they can’t be discredited. Right now, science is being discredited and we have alternative “facts,” including around treatments and what you need to do, so bringing science to Congress is important to maintain science and facts.
You are also running as a voice for equity. Covid has underlined the inequalities of the US healthcare system, while at the same time some of the best hospitals and research centers are American. How can science promote more equity in the US?
You are right, the US has some of the best hospitals, best doctors, nurses, health departments, and yet we are in this crisis mode. In early March, I wrote a piece in the Washington Post with Dr Mary Travis Bassett, the former New York City health commissioner. As a social epidemiologist, someone who has studied the way diseases are patterned by poverty and inequalities, I warned that this epidemic will probably play out much worse in the US than in other countries, not just because of the inequities in terms of access to healthcare, but also because of anti-immigrant sentiment as well as our deep inequities across racial lines and income lines. For instance, when you have a disease like Covid, the main tool for public health is to be able to do contact tracing: identify someone who has tested positive and ask them to give you a list of everyone they’ve been in contact with, and then you go to them, test them, quarantine people, etc. But with this anti-immigrant sentiment, people may not be willing to give you names if they are worried about any undocumented family or friends, as that may result in a tremendous punishment. For a disease like Covid, you need deep trust in government and institutions, and we did not have that this time around.
Importantly, I am running on a science and equity platform, and what that means is that I care deeply about how this is playing out for different populations. We know that the elderly, nursing homes and congregational settings have been hit the worst, but also in the general public it is communities of color, black Americans, native Americans, Hispanic and immigrant communities. So, a science-based approach which is equity focused would look at the distribution – who is at risk, who is having the worst outcomes – and direct our resources to those communities. And that is simply not happening. We are saying “Let’s reopen” and putting the entire risk onto the same communities. So wealthy white Americans are most likely going to continue working from home, but it’s the workers who have the least power, most precarious jobs, and likely the least means to protect themselves and their families who are going to be put at risk. So, you think about who is being disadvantaged and you provide the means for them to protect themselves and their families.
You have a progressive agenda but have still managed to gain the support of leading figures of the Greek-American community irrespective of their political affiliation. How can the US overcome the partisan, economic and social divide?
I take pride in having been brought up in a Greek family that was very religious – going to church, following lent – but also a very science-oriented, feminist family. My parents are both doctors, my mother grew up in Karditsa, my grandfather was a baker, my dad’s father was a refugee from Smyrna, and they both really valued education and science, but they also raised us with a deep moral compass, values around equity and justice. In the US that maps on to a progressive agenda, but in fact it’s about our values. I was raised into this progressive moral agenda through a religious upbringing, while in the US a lot of the progressives are not religious. It’s an interesting paradox, but that allows me to have a deep connection with people across the Greek-American community, which I think is excited about my candidacy not because of my progressive values but as a highly educated scientist with a message for global solidarity who is willing to step in. I think that they value that I am a mother of three young kids.
The Greek-American community is interested in issues of Greek national security, and the challenges from Turkey have brought back this emphasis. What can you contribute to those issues more broadly?
I grew up in Greece – until I was 17 – my parents still live in Greece, I go there every summer – although this summer unfortunately not – so I have a very deep connection to Greece. I am unique as a candidate because of my significant global experience, so I will be able to address some of the concerns of the Greek-American community due to my previous experience at the UN. And I am also married to a Palestinian Lebanese Christian whose Christian community in the Middle East has also seen a lot of threats. So, I approach the question on Hagia Sophia, for instance, as a threat not just to Greek Orthodox communities, as this is an attack by [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan on human rights and religious minorities. My position on any of the foreign policy questions is based on a human rights approach and I will be a strong ally and advocate for those issues, but I won’t stop there. I care about human rights everywhere.