Derek Griffith, Ph.D., is a professor of medicine, health, and society and director of the Center for Research on Men’s Health at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, TN. In this Rapid Reaction to the Election in the United States, Prof. Griffith explains why he thinks, “Policymakers and health professionals need to more fully embrace and recognize that the economy and individuals’ pocketbooks or wallets have as much to do with health as a pandemic.”

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Image credit: Al Drago/Getty Images

Almost 30 years ago, James Carville pasted the mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid,” throughout the campaign headquarters of Bill Clinton. In 2020, the exit polls from the presidential election strongly suggest that Carville’s mantra remains equally true today for many Americans.

In the days following the election, the U.S. recorded an all-time high of over 100,000 new COVID-19 cases, with the number of deaths standing at over 230,000.

COVID-19 has taken — and continues to take — a toll on the health and well-being of the nation. Yet, according to the exit poll of record and across party lines, the economy was the most important issue to the people casting their votes for president.

The coronavirus pandemic was third, following racial inequality.

As a public health professional and psychologist who designs and implements strategies to help people, particularly men, engage in healthier behavior, I have long been fascinated by the disconnect between the ways that we as health professionals seek to prioritize health and the ways that people do so in their daily lives.

More than a decade ago, Dr. Chloe Bird and Dr. Patricia Rieker published a book on their theory of constrained choice.

In it, they explain that while health is a priority and universal goal, health is not a higher priority than earning an adequate income or meeting the demands of being a parent, worker, or life partner.

Research on men’s health, particularly men who are fathers, has found a similar set of priorities.

While for some this will seem obvious, it is uncommon for medical providers, public health professionals, or policymakers to think of health in this way.

Despite the growth of research that has sought to embrace a definition of health that is broader than the presence or absence of disease, policymakers and health professionals need to more fully embrace and recognize that the economy and individuals’ pocketbooks or wallets have as much to do with health as a pandemic.

While it is true that there were differences in how strongly people felt about this across party lines, more than one-fifth of Democrats and three-fourths of Republicans suggested that rebuilding the economy now was more important than containing the new coronavirus.

Though personally I find this difficult to accept, given how the pandemic has affected friends, colleagues, and loved ones, it is important to “meet people where they are” and recognize that economic priorities have always been fundamental to how people view themselves and how they are judged by family, friends, and others.

Yes, we lament and mourn people who become ill and die, but we demonize those who do not take care of their responsibilities, particularly roles and responsibilities rooted in their ability to help provide for their children and families.

We as public health professionals have to understand that the way that we vote and behave in relation to our health may be counterintuitive to some, but it is very consistent with how we tend to value others.

Regardless of gender, we respect and value adults who sacrifice their sleep, health, and safety for children and loved ones. Some may even suggest that this is what it means to be part of a family or community.

The question is not whether or not you agree. The question is do we understand that this is where our fellow Americans are?

If we are going to move forward as a nation, we need to recognize that economic realities do not go away or diminish in a pandemic; if anything, economic stressors go up.