Monkeypox is not a pandemic. Yet.

On July 23, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that this monkeypox outbreak is a “public health emergency of international concern.” We hope that the WHO declaration will be a wakeup call for everyone. We hope the wakeup call is heard in the Coachella Valley and in the California Department of Public Health, as well in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

California is approaching monkeypox with ineffective, lukewarm and misguided measures.

There are important lessons we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and other epidemics that should be applied, now and in the future:

1. Equity matters.

2. No one is safe when someone is not safe.

3. Stigmatizing diseases or communities results in the politicization of public health.

Equity in healthcare means providing care that does not vary in quality because of personal characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geographic location, and socioeconomic status. This is a complex topic that can be better addressed by understanding that you first must identify those at higher risk of becoming ill; prioritize their access to care; and remove all barriers that keep them from accessing it.

We know who is at the highest risk today; the numbers are clear: Men who have sex with other men (MSM) are the group at highest risk of monkeypox infection. Prioritize them. Remove all barriers that this group faces; increase awareness; increase education; increase knowledge; increase the outreach; and more important, make the vaccine and treatment available to them, now, here in the Coachella Valley.

A vaccine distribution based on ratios or per capita is the wrong approach. It is an approach that failed us in the COVID-19 pandemic. Giving priority to larger counties and larger cities because they have more people is an ineffective strategy.

Secondly, no one is safe when someone is not safe. Today, the population with the highest risk of infection is MSM. But MSM do not live in isolation in a fantasy gayland. They are our brothers, children, fathers, cousins, uncles, nephews, co-workers, friends and neighbors. As a population at the highest risk of infection, it is almost certain that without proper protection, which existing vaccines can provide, MSM will not be the only community members affected. Other populations that today have lower risks also will be vulnerable: seniors, women and children. Viruses do not discriminate.

A vaccine distribution based on ratios or per capita is the wrong approach. It is an approach that failed us in the COVID-19 pandemic.

My final point is that public health is a science. It is the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities. It is based on the study of diseases, risks and behaviors related to a given population. These populations can be as small as a local neighborhood, or as big as an entire county, state, country, or region of the world. Public health professionals try to prevent problems from happening or recurring through implementing educational programs, recommending policies, administering services, and conducting research to maintain and protect our health.

Our communities need our public health officials to make decisions free of political influences. The public must support this as an enlightened self-interest.

Today, we have a window to stop the spread of monkeypox. But this window is closing. The number of monkeypox cases continues to grow each day. 

As long as we continue failing to apply the lessons recently and painfully learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, we will continue to struggle to contain the spread of the virus that causes monkeypox.

Conrado Bárzaga is the CEO of the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation.