A double bind is a psychological predicament in which a person receives conflicting messages from a single source that allows no appropriate response to be made broadly.
Without speculating about the specifics of Dr. Cathy Slemp’s position and her recent forced resignation from the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health, it seems to me that she might have been suffering from being caught up in a classical double bind. If that is the case, then I hope she is finding some relief in being released from that situation.
In this case, the single source is Gov. Jim Justice.
The conflicting messages related to the coronavirus pandemic have been well documented in this newspaper and other media, and referenced in other op-eds I have written.
None of this has made any difference in the actions taken to date, except to blame any problems on Dr. Slemp and send her packing on that basis.
The handful of us who are tuning in to the governor’s daily COVID-19 news conferences are still being exhorted, every time, to wear masks. At the same time, there is no concerted promotion or educational campaign on the part of the state government to convince us to do so. I can also remember no sign of the governor or his team, except for coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh, ever setting the example. A recent promo by the National Guard, which has done such great work in so many ways, shows members at close quarters with others, inside and outside, without wearing masks.
It would be really great to see all of our elected officials and candidates wear masks and include people with masks in their campaign ads, etc. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have already appeared publicly with masks on. Sen. Manchin has a video with prominent West Virginians telling us to wear masks and promotes the #MaskUpWV hashtag.
Our governor continues to tell us that a mandate to wear masks is ill-advised, since it will only divide us. The more I think about this, the more it hits me that this division will put people who love and respect each other by wearing a mask on one side and people who do not love and respect each other on the other side. That division already exists. Why are all of us in our state having our lives put at risk and being held hostage to the minority of people who do not love and respect one another?
At the end of every news conference, the governor thanks us for all of our great work because of low numbers of COVID-19 cases in the state. He makes no attempt to compare these numbers proportionately to other states based on our low population or to show us the trends over time in key metrics, such as the number of deaths.
We also are told that recoveries are victories. Yet, the science shows that some people who no longer test positive for the virus are facing a lifetime of chronic and disabling conditions for reasons that are not yet fully understood.
Permission continues to be given for further reopening while our numbers of cases and deaths are still increasing. There is no clear scientific basis for what we have reopened or when. There is likewise no clear plan to use data to shut things down again in the face of these increases.
We are again inviting people into our state with few, if any, restrictions. At the same time, we are reminded that our surrounding states and beyond have higher infection rates and numbers of cases than we do.
When our own residents go to certain beaches, they are being told that they need to quarantine themselves and get tested when they return. Why would we not have the same concern about non-West Virginia residents who are from those same places when they visit here? It defies common sense.
The governor also keeps saying he is above politics. Yet, he goes on about his close friendship and love for a sitting president with no apparent recognition that they are both running for reelection in tough races right now. He tells us there is no playbook. Yet it often appears that he is following lockstep not only with the president, but also with some of the most dysfunctional and anti-science governors in the country at a time when we most need him to follow the science in making decisions that are specific to our own state.
These conflicting dynamics are all enough of a challenge to deal with for those of us whose lives are affected by the resulting decisions. I can only try to imagine what it must have been like for a nationally recognized public health professional like Dr. Slemp to be in the middle of this and trying to meet what were probably the most critical challenges in her career. She was also dependent for her success on the cooperation of her direct boss and all the other state and local, public and private entities that are subject to the same conflicting dynamics as the rest of us.
As our governor says often, you are a miracle but we have got to do better, West Virginians. Yes, we have got to do better. For better and worse, this starts and ends at the top.
We already have a saint in Dr. Marsh, for being able to keep his head on straight, at least to date, while weathering all of these storms and continuing to restate the facts. The true miracle will be in finding someone quickly who has the same high level of expertise as he and Dr. Slemp have — and who is also willing and able to navigate these impossible dynamics.
I know there also are a lot of women who would like to continue to see at least some diversity within the governor’s key team. We cannot know to what extent his lack of confidence in Dr. Slemp was based on her being a woman.
We know that women and minorities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in all of its aspects, including health disparities and the economic repercussions. It can be an additional challenge to obtain the voluntary cooperation we need to practice proper precautions when there is no one who looks like us on the decision-making team.
Still, I have to agree with the governor that we West Virginians are smart. We will figure out what we need to do to protect ourselves and those we love, as well as our communities. I have confidence in our ability to overcome our challenges without succumbing to these double-bind dynamics.
Despite our high-risk population, we are clear-headed and have the wisdom and strong spirit to do what it takes to get through all of this and arrive at a better place on the other side of it.