THE NIGERIAN SURGEON-GENERAL OF FLORIDA
By Femi Olugbile
One of the most interesting news items out of the United States of America recently is the announcement by Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida that he has appointed a young Nigerian doctor – Joseph Ladapo, to serve as the next Surgeon General and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health.
On the surface it looks like the all too familiar story of Nigerians in the diaspora soaring to lofty heights in the professions, exciting admiration from all.
The Nigerian Diaspora would have been expected to be rolling out the talking drums by now in chest-thumping celebration.
But the ‘our son has done it again’ drum-beat has been strangely muted.
There may be several reasons for this uneasy silence, including the political undertones of the appointment.
The Surgeon General’s office – whether state of federal, is a very important, and occasionally contentious, one. The lurid developments around the office during the Trump Presidency provide illustration of this fact. So does the still-ongoing love-hate relationship between some members of the public and that other important medical figure in the federal government, Dr Anthony Fauci – the Chief Medical Advisor to the President. So extreme is the hatred some Trumpers feel for the man’s ideas, to this day, that they have not given up the hope that someone will take aim at him with a gun and shoot him dead.
In presenting Joseph Ladapo to the public as his appointee, Governor DeSantis hailed his ‘superb background’ and impressive academic and medical accomplishments.
Ladapo emigrated to the USA as a five-year-old boy, taken there by his father, a microbiologist, in a search for ‘greener pastures’. The little boy went on to graduate from Wake Forest University, before obtaining an MD from Harvard Medical School. A PhD in Health Policy from Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences followed.
He established a reputation as a physician, with research interest in Health Policy especially as it pertained to reducing the burden of cardiovascular disease.
Since the onset of the COVID19 pandemic, he has been involved as a physician rendering service at UCLA and as a vocal public commentator. While not being clearly an ‘anti-vaxxer’, he rejects the notion that the vaccine is the ultimate solution to COVID19. Also, while he does not totally discount the possible benefit of wearing masks and observing social distancing, he does not believe that either the vaccine or the mask should be made compulsory by government ‘mandate’. He believes, rather, that people should have the freedom to choose, and that life should go on pretty much as usual. He is against long quarantines, especially for students.
One of his opinion pieces for the Wall Street journal is titled ‘How to live with COVID, not for it’.
Ladapo was involved with a vocal group of right-wing ‘Frontline Doctors’ who vigorously pushed hydroxy-chloroquine and Ivermectin as cures for COVID19 during the Trump era.
In his formal politics, he has been careful to define himself as an ‘Independent’.
For a much-harassed Republican governor in a state such as Florida with a heavy COVID19 morbidity and mortality burden, with a relative preponderance of black casualties, eager to ‘double down,’ a brilliant black man ready to become his mouthpiece and ‘scientific’ justification is a heaven-send. Ladapo may yet help pull DeSantis chestnuts out of the fire and do wonders for the neo-Trumpian agenda, especially if COVID ‘disappears’.
In responding to the kind words of the Governor, Ladapo gave a hint of change to come for the people of Florida. Health policy decisions, in his view, should be rooted in data, and not in fear. He was, of course, referring to the Biden federal government, with their use of vaccine mandates for large employers of labour and mask mandates for school children.
Some people have declared that the Republican DeSantis, by picking Ladapo to carry forward his unpopular line, is merely reenacting the old racist trope of the white man getting a subservient black man to carry his can. That portrayal is unfair to the Nigerian, who is neither stupid nor naïve.
Those colleagues who are against Ladapo’s views believe he will worsen the plight of long-suffering Floridans. They include most black physicians in America, and Nigeria, and most white physicians everywhere.
‘He is a public health danger’ writes one doctor from Southern California.
Dr Nina Shapiro, an associate professor at UCLA, where Ladapo taught, tweeted that ‘his views align more with DeSantis than with UCLAHealth’.
This column celebrates the attainment of the lofty office of Surgeon General of the State of Florida by a fellow Nigerian, Dr Joseph Ladapo. It is the proper thing to do.
However, it is necessary to point out that it is impossible to agree with his obviously wrong ideological premise. In a public health crisis, the individual’s right to choose is subsumed under the requirement to protect the greater public good. For example, a person with an eruption of Smallpox, or exposure to it, cannot, based on personal choice, refuse the mandatory requirement for quarantine. The same logic applies to COVID19.
But the ‘under-whelming’ applause of the Nigerian, and Yoruba, diaspora to Dr Ladapo’s achievement should be interrogated, too. There is a Yoruba adage that ‘Everybody cannot lie down to sleep facing the same direction’. It is regarded as almost as an act of treachery to the race when a black man in the UK or USA stands up to be counted as a ‘Conservative’ or ‘Republican’, because most blacks identify as ‘Labour’ or ‘Democrat’.
And yet, it is a sadly mistaken stance, and one that is apt to be limiting ultimately to the interests of the race. It also denies a basic fact of human psychology – that some people are naturally ‘conservative’, and some naturally ‘liberal’, in every race, and every clime. It can be seen even from observing children at play.
People can oppose other people’s ideas, without denying their right to hold those ideas, just because of their colour or country of origin.
It is called ‘Democracy’.