Big Bird and “Sesame Street” Are Not Political, but Open Community Health Data Sets Are

Community health and COVID

Last week, the beloved PBS TV children’s program Sesame Street partnered with CNN to educate the nation’s children and their parents about COVID and the vaccine. The program’s leadership also decided to have two of its most popular characters, Big Bird and Elmo, “tweet” messages about their vaccination “plans.” For many individuals, this educational effort was a welcome means of sharing COVID vaccine information with a young audience.

What should have been a unifying effort to protect the nation’s youth quickly digressed into partisanship with accusations of Sesame Street spreading “government propaganda” by a vocal politician. It is important to note that Sesame Street has promoted vaccinations as a public health effort since 1972.

The politicians and pundits who choose to spread COVID disinformation are pursuing destructive philosophies that compromise the health and well-being of America’s most vulnerable populations amid a once-in-a-century pandemic. It is an odd form of “Ivy League populism” as advanced by a small yet vocal and strategic minority of the electorate.

Calling well-meaning educational efforts about public health “propaganda” is corrosive to our efforts to flatten the COVID curve. The evidence is clear, recent research shows that communities that are more suspectable to COVID disinformation are dying at a rate nearly five times the national average.

Not surprisingly, some populist politicians also reject paid sick leave and public health mandates, and this behavior is not sustainable for the US or the world. Moreover, participating in deliberate disinformation efforts can be interpreted as violating America’s constitutional preamble to “promote the general welfare.”

The point of promoting the general welfare is one I want to drive home. Many American higher education institutions’ mottos, missions, and visions neatly align with the constitutional concept of promoting the general welfare. Therefore, it is not too far afield for the academy to share and promote data that outlines how paid sick leave, vaccination efforts, and public health mandates are for the common good.

However, there is a considerable barrier to accessing and leveraging open data sets on community health in the COVID era—state government officials. Several state government leaders have flat out refused to provide this data to accurately map the impact of the COVID crisis and proactively plan for this type of crisis never to happen again.

The critical message for the academy to signal right now is to urge states to open up community health data (paywalled) and depoliticize this essential material. It is time to display with context why women, single people, and BIPOC are overwhelmingly in favor of paid sick leave and public health mandates and why other demographics are not.

Higher education’s open data and open science dialogues tend to be relegated to our common cloisters of professional associations, conferences, and symposia. We often speak in a specific language and iterate on the open data elements that excite us most.

However, advocacy and coordination efforts supporting open community health data require partnerships and communications strategies that reach beyond our hallowed halls.

Facing a third year of the COVID crisis in the US weighs heavily upon my shoulders and within my spirit, and we are barely four and a half months away from this reality.

These grim times are calling for the academy to lead differently. It is time to crystalize a vision and strategy to ensure open access to community data sets becomes our next normal beyond COVID.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.