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Medical populism

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Medical emergencies are staple features of today's 24/7 culture of breaking news. As politics becomes increasingly stylised, audiences fragmented, and established knowledge claims contested, health crises have become even more vulnerable to politicisation. We offer the vocabulary of medical populism to make sense of this phenomenon. We define medical populism as a political style based on performances of public health crises that pit ‘the people’ against ‘the establishment.’ While some health emergencies lead to technocratic responses that soothe anxieties of a panicked public, medical populism thrives by politicising, simplifying, and spectacularising complex public health issues. To demonstrate the concept's analytical value, we offer four illustrative examples. Thabo Mbeki's HIV denialism and the Philippines’ vaccination scandal are examples of the populist logic of forging vertical divisions between the people and the establishment (e.g. the West, big pharma, medical experts). Meanwhile, the Ebola scare and Southeast Asia's drug wars are examples of horizontal divisions that divide the ‘virtuous people’ against ‘dangerous outsiders’ (e.g. racial minorities, drug addicts) whose ‘threats’ have long been overlooked by out-of-touch members of the political and medical establishment. The article concludes by examining the implications of medical populism to health communication and democratic politics.




Lasco, G., & Curato, N. (2019). Medical populism. Social Science and Medicine, 221, 1–8.

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