Kevin Cranston and the truth of pandemics
Kevin Cranston, MDiv ’86, learned early on that viruses tell the truth. As a gay man coming of age during the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s, he saw the ways that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) crossed national and geographic boundaries to reveal the underlying disparities in U.S. society. The populations that suffered most during the health crisis were also the most vulnerable—the poor, people of color, addicts, and gay and bisexual men like him. In a word, the marginalized “other.”
“The blatant and overt—as well as systemic and institutionalized—disregard for their lives was manifest in the early days of the epidemic,” he says. “And it’s still with us today.”
More than a generation later, Cranston fights a different pandemic that tells the same truths. As assistant commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, he puts the skills and habits of mind he acquired at HDS to use in the effort to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, which devastates marginalized communities just as HIV did.
Something to Offer
When Cranston enrolled at HDS in 1983, he didn’t know he was taking his first step on the path to a 32-year career in public health. He was trying to respond to a moment of crisis in the gay community. Activists had built a vibrant movement in the years since the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. Now he saw it fragmenting, as partners and friends rejected HIV-positive men, treating them “like pariahs.”
“It hit me very hard that this community we had grown and built in reaction to the oppression of outsiders was now oppressing itself,” he says. “I came to HDS because I recognized that the epidemic was going to be a long-term reality, and I needed to have some-thing to offer.”
At HDS, Cranston learned to reflect, to scrutinize his own assumptions, and to identify the ways that society demonizes the “other”—skills that have been invaluable to him during his career. He says that history shows pandemics typically come in twos: the virus and the outbreak of fear and prejudice that accompany it.
“The 1918 flu pandemic was called the Spanish Flu, not because it originated in Spain, but because Spain was the first to openly acknowledge it,” he says. “Today, there’s this identification of COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese Virus.’ And so, I have Asian American colleagues who are fearful of traveling, of moving about the world in public, because they’re seen as a threat. The other illnesses in our society—particularly around race, class, and ethnicity—are playing out underneath this epidemic.”
Because viruses tell the truth, though, Cranston says they often reveal as lies the very prejudices to which they give rise.
“One of the truths the coronavirus has told is that we are amazingly like one another. Human beings are human beings despite all the differences of biology and culture that we focus on. We are fundamentally very much the same organism. That’s why it spreads. There really is not an ‘other’ here.”
Ministry of Public Health
Ask Cranston about the future and he draws on another lesson from his time at HDS: Have humility about what you can and cannot know. He points out that the coronavirus is a new organism—one with which humans have little experience and no immunity. The world could be in for multiple waves of infection. Moreover, putting aside the challenges of mass production and distribution, a vaccine is probably still months away. For these reasons, Cranston is slow to criticize colleges and universities that have decided to stay online this fall.
“[The Department of Public Health does] a certain amount of consultation with the higher education system,” he says. “On top of that, individual institutions have also tapped their own experts to read and analyze the data. They’re balancing the risk of human illness with the loss of connection and educational opportunity. You make the best choices you can to maximize the goods and minimize the harms. I’m not going to second-guess those decisions.”
When confronted by the argument between those who caution against prematurely relaxing public health measures that mitigate the spread of the pandemic and those who cry that the “cure is worse than the disease,” Cranston draws on a final lesson from his time at HDS: Reject dichotomies. Make space for multiple perspectives.
“I’m particularly concerned about the disproportionate impact of the closures on the most economically vulnerable,” he says. “It’s day workers. It’s hourly workers. It’s people in the food and restaurant business. It’s people who cut hair. Their money ended the day they were sent home. And when they lose their health insurance, when they put off doctor’s appointments, when they turn to substances to deal with the stress—those are public health issues too. We have to put as much attention into rebuilding their lives as we put into the response to the pandemic.”
It is this attention to the “least of these” that inspires Kevin Cranston’s passion for his work. By bringing moral teaching and ethical analysis to all he does, Cranston transforms the practice of public health into a ministry of social justice.
“Injustice continues to play out in our society,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to go into public health. We’re responsible for the whole population. We don’t get to pick and choose who our patients are. We get to use our tools to unpack what’s really going on in our society. We can’t always address the root causes, but we can name them. We can point to them.”
—by Paul Massari