From My Brain: Politics, Health, and the Right to Know

During the Vice Presidential debate, Kamala Harris was asked if she feels the president has a responsibility to disclose major health issues.

While Kamala focused instead on the honesty of the president (which is another issue entirely) in the asking of the question, it raises the ethical dilemma of to what extent a president is allowed to keep his health issues private.

And the truth is, I honestly don’t know what the answer is here.

What other job requires full disclosure not only to the hiring organization, but potentially the whole world, each and every diagnosis and course of medical treatments? What other job necessitates breaking news bulletins when the body of an aging person fails in some manner or is diagnosed with an illness?

But, on the other hand, I don’t think anyone could say that the presidency, or any head of state could be considered just a job.

I don’t know what the rules are in Canada, and I cannot speak with any certainty as to what the expectations are for members of government in regards to disclosing health issues. In recent memory, I can recall on a provincial level, my MLA announced she would be stepping down due to health issues.

Another MP, Arnold Chan, did announce his diagnoses before his death via a letter on his website. Chan is renowned for his beautifully written letter to his colleagues in the house which was read posthumously. This letter called for goodwill and the courage to work together in the face of difficult times.

A difficult memory was Jack Layton’s sudden stepping back after his party’s historic win. I recall the sudden shock of seeing Layton at that press conference and realizing must have been facing a significant illness. It seems that many MPs in Layton’s party were not aware of the cancer diagnosis at the time. Even now, Layton’s family have respected his wishes by not sharing the official cancer diagnosis that took his life.

But a Canadian MP or MLA, as important as they are to their constituents, no matter their impact or the moving, inspiring words they leave behind, are simply not in the same media spotlight as the head of state.

The role of a head of state is one of leadership, but too, that person represents their nation in a global scale.

What does it mean to Germans when Angela Merkel shook uncontrollably, video of which was shared via news outlets around the world?

What does it mean to Japanese people when Shinzo Abe stepped down due to health reasons?

How did Americans grapple with their place in the global sphere when Eisenhower’s illnesses became increasingly visible?

If a head of state is your country’s representative in the world, what does it mean when that person is unwell?

With stakes like that, there is no wonder that high ranking politicians hide or diminish any illnesses they have.

Realistically, what possible advantage could there be to proactively disclose that information?

Any diagnosis a politician reveals is just another piece of information that their political enemies could use against them.

There were some eyebrows raised when all medical staff who treated Trump were required to sign non disclosure agreements. I’m surprised only because I assumed that HIPPA would protect his medical data, but realistically I don’t find this a wildly suspicious course of action.

In the here and now, the real problem is one of Trump’s own creation: he is a demonstrable liar.

There is such media and social media frenzy because no one was sure if Trump actually had Covid-19, or if he was making it up to distract from the debate, or if he was making it up to make the case that covid isn’t that bad, or if he was making it up to give him time to swap him out for a body double… or whatever the conspiracy theory du jour the internet has come up with.

We don’t believe him because we have evidence that we shouldn’t believe him.

Trump’s tenuous relationship with truth aside, what does a health diagnosis mean for a typical head of state?

The challenge with a diagnosis of illness in the head of state, in my opinion, comes down to two big issues.

1) Our head of state, for better or for worse, is seen as the one and only representative for a country. There may be thousands of people who work in an administration, hundreds of consulting experts, and even millions of members of the population – but somehow, we have one person who is supposed represent all of us. It helps for the idea of social cohesion, and allows for an easily recognizable hierarchy when dealing with international governments.

2) We’re afraid of illness. I think on a cerebral level, we all understand that each of us will die one day. But I think what so many are even more afraid of is the loss of facilities that may come before this inevitable end. Will that person be able to think the same? Will a tremor or misstep be taken as a sign of weakness? What if someone takes advantage of them during a moment of fatigue?

To tease these concepts out further, on the first point, I do believe we rely heavily on the elevation of one person above all. Yes a head of state represents your country, but in a parliamentary system like Canada, you may never actually cast a vote for the Prime Minister (unless you live in their riding or are a voting member of the party).

Yes, here is the touchy feely of it all: maybe we shouldn’t exalt our leaders so high that they can’t even get sick? Maybe we should acknowledge that to lead a country in the modern world, politicians rely on expert advice and research of persons who are working in their field. There are hundreds of people who work in government, and millions of people who live in a country. It may just be too much pressure to say that one person represents our whole country.

On the second point: there isn’t anything that can be said about fear of death. That is ultimately a personal revelation that each person needs to come to in their own time.

But the fear of illness speaks significantly to how we protect (or don’t) and make supports available (or don’t) for people who are struggling or are ill. If we are afraid of someone thinking less of a person who is ill, maybe we need to treat people with illnesses better.

Revealing a health diagnosis places voters in a position that gives them information that may unnecessarily cloud their voting decision. If you are a person who is voting based on someone else’s health, are you truly in a position to make a determination of health? Are you a doctor, an expert, or a researcher? Are you able to assess the candidates abilities from afar? If your candidate has a long term illness, do you truly know enough to determine their wellness to complete their duties?

What about a mental health diagnosis? Even if you are a mental health professional, there are many reasons that making a diagnosis from afar without knowing the person in a clinical setting is generally not appropriate and is definitely not helpful.

If you are not in a position to determine health, the diagnosis of an illness may play into the tapestry of information that influences how you vote – but it shouldn’t be the only piece of information you rely on.

I strongly believe that just because a voter knows the health issues of a candidate, that information ultimately may not be helpful. A diagnosis similar to a loved one may make a voter more willing to forgive a mistake that shouldn’t have been made, and a diagnosis that is misunderstood may become a catch-all for perceived poor behaviour.

So at the end of the day: what about a regular person who happens to be a head of state who only lies as much as the average person? Don’t they have a right to their privacy?

Legally, I imagine they do.

Socially, the issue calls into question of how we view our heads of state, how we treat and perceive illnesses, our deep dark fears around illness, and what information is helpful for the voter to know.

I don’t know what I as a voter have the right to know in regards to the health of my candidates. I don’t know if there is ever going to be a one size fits all solution to every situation.

What I do know is that when we create environments where personal information isn’t used as political weapons, these questions will likely become obsolete.

Related Reading:

Podcast: Repost The President Catches the Virus (This Day in Esoteric Political History)

Article: In Sickness and In Health (Foreign Policy)

Article: 5 Presidents Who Hid Their Health Issues (History)

Article: The long history of hiding US presidential illnesses (Al Jazeera)

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