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Sports and Mental Health; Authoritarian Crackdown on Journalists; Interview With Belarusian Opposition Leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya; Interview with Colleen Hacker; Interview with Michelle Fiscus and Jason Martin. Aired 1-2p ET
Aired July 29, 2021 - 13:00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR.
Here's what's coming up.
SVETLANA TIKHANOVSKAYA, BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION LEADER: I think that the USA has a moral obligation to be with us.
GOLODRYGA (voice-over): Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya gets support from President Joe Biden in her fight for democracy. Now she
tells me what needs to happen after the photo-op.
Then: In Belarus, Russia and elsewhere, authoritarian leaders crack down on journalists. I speak with investigative reporter Alexey Kovalev about
taking risks to stand up to the state.
SIMONE BILES, U.S. OLYMPIC GYMNAST: That's why I took a step back, because I didn't want to do something silly out there and get injured.
GOLODRYGA: Performance psychology expert Dr. Colleen Hacker explores what happens when an athlete's mental state causes physical risk.
DR. JASON B. MARTIN, CRITICAL CARE PHYSICIAN: We're having to intubate patients again and cry with their loved ones as they pass away again. And
we're just thinking, it doesn't have to be this way.
GOLODRYGA: Hari Sreenivasan speaks with practitioners on the ground in Tennessee about the human toll of vaccine denial.
GOLODRYGA: Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Bianna Golodryga in New York, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour, who will be back next week.
After days of uncertainty, an important act of diplomacy has finally happened. And it played out in President Biden's Twitter feed. He posted a
photograph of his meeting with Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, saying that he was honored to meet with her at the White
Mr. Biden added that the United States stands with the people of Belarus in their quest for democracy and universal human rights.
The face-to-face talks place the White House seal of approval on her campaign to ratchet up international pressure on Belarus strongman
I will be speaking with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in just a moment.
But Lukashenko is going to great lengths to crack down on independent reporters, as the world saw when he forced a passenger jet to land in
Belarus and seize dissident journalists Roman Protasevich.
Well, Russian President Vladimir Putin is another old hand at suppressing journalism. And the intensity of the crackdown seems to be rising. Just
yesterday, Russian security officers raided the home of Roman Dobrokhotov, photo editor of the independent news site The Insider.
Alexey Kovalev is a colleague of Dobrokhotov, and he oversees the investigative reporting at the Meduza news site and joins me from Moscow.
Alexey, welcome back to the program.
OK, I believe we have some technical issues with Alexey's shot. So we will come back to him in just a moment.
Let me just ask the control room quickly.
We're going to go now to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Svetlana, welcome to the program. This is called live television. So we never know what could happen. But I'm glad that you were able to join us.
Can you hear me?
TIKHANOVSKAYA: I can hear you. Good morning.
GOLODRYGA: Good to see you. Thank you so much for joining us.
I know that we spoke just a few weeks ago. And this was prior to your trip to the United States, where you met with many leaders here and those that
work in the administration.
But there had been questions as to whether you would actually meet with President Biden. You yourself doubted that would happen just Monday. And
here we are, yesterday, that famous photo now of you and President Biden.
How did this meeting come about?
TIKHANOVSKAYA: First of all, I'm so grateful for this meeting, because it was important for Belarusians, for us to have this political will.
And it was very, very warm and sensitive meeting. I'm really glad I met the person who says that it's an ongoing struggle between autocracy and
democracy. And so Belarus is on the front line of this fight. So, the USA will be with Belarusians this difficult moment.
GOLODRYGA: Yes. And you spoke with reporters shortly after that meeting outside of the White House. You said that the meeting lasted about 15
And you said: "I am leaving the White House with confidence that the United States will be with Belarusians both now and later, after a new election."
Prior to this meeting, you had expressed some discouragement that you weren't getting real tangential issues resolved. You weren't getting
promises from the White House as to what they would do, what actions they would take.
Did you get any actions, any promises from President Biden yesterday?
TIKHANOVSKAYA: Look, we are not looking for promises.
Our task is to explain what's going on in Belarus and how the USA could be helpful in our resistance to dictatorship. And we discussed a lot. We
understand that we will communicate further. And we together try to look for ways out of the situation.
And more the USA can do is isolate Lukashenko's regime politically, diplomatically and financially, assist civil society, assist those mass
media and businesses that had to relocate from the country, and, of course, prisoners and their families.
And we also talked about a future vision of Belarus. We will need to restore our country, because, at the moment, regime is destroying all the
NGOs, destroying civil society, media, and we will need assistance in the future as well. So a lot has been discussed.
And I am sure that everything we discussed will be fulfilled. It's not about promises. It's about commitment.
GOLODRYGA: Well, we know that the United States, along with other European allies, has imposed sanctions on Belarus following the downing of that
Ryanair flight and the detaining of Roman Protasevich.
But you have actually pushed that what needs to be taken next to really put Lukashenko in a bind is sanctions against those entities closest to him,
those companies closest to him, his cronies, as you call them.
Did you get any indication from President Biden that that would be his next move?
TIKHANOVSKAYA: I hope that the USA will impose stronger sanctions on Belarusian Belarusian regime and close loopholes that were left after
European Union sanctions.
GOLODRYGA: But you did not get any promises from President Biden or any indication that that would be something that he would look to do?
TIKHANOVSKAYA: No, I didn't take any promises. It's the prerogative of President Biden and his team to fulfill or not fulfill what we asked him
GOLODRYGA: You know, it's interesting, because one of the reasons perhaps, and those that follow Belarus and Russia, many had been speculating why
this meeting had not taken place yet.
You had been in the United States for quite a few days and weeks now. And one theory was that this administration, President Biden, didn't want to
further the tensions between him and Vladimir Putin following their meeting in Geneva. Obviously, there are other issues on the docket, including
cyberattacks and what have you.
Now that this meeting took place, given how close Lukashenko is and how much he relies on President Putin, I'm wondering whether you think this was
a message that President Biden was trying to send Vladimir Putin.
Did Putin -- did his name come up at all during this meeting?
TIKHANOVSKAYA: No, this meeting didn't happen while our first visit to Washington because you know that President Biden has the toughest schedule
in the world.
So, the fact of meeting -- we have this fact of meeting, and it is wonderful. And, of course, this is clear message to Belarusian people, to
the cronies of the regime and other states that the USA is on the side of light, but not on the side of darkness.
GOLODRYGA: But did you speak about Vladimir Putin at all with President Biden?
TIKHANOVSKAYA: We were concentrated on Belarus.
GOLODRYGA: I know you said that you were there not only for yourself and representing the nation, but for the 35,000-plus Belarusians who have been
detained without any reason back home.
In their countries, many journalists have been targeted as well. The opposition movement there really has been suppressed by Lukashenko over the
past few months. And you yourself said that it needed a spark.
Do you think that meeting with President Biden, even though it was just 15 minutes, but that picture was seen around the world, do you think that was
the spark that can reignite that movement?
TIKHANOVSKAYA: No, our movement is continuing. It is still there. And nobody's given up in Belarus, despite of huge repressions in Belarus.
And, of course, this meeting will not spark people, because people are already sparked. But this is not about messaging. This is about on whose
side the greatest democracies.
GOLODRYGA: This is a personal issue for you, not only because you represent Belarus and want to see a brighter, more democratic future for
the country, but because your husband is one of those that's detained as well.
You and your children have not seen him now in a year. You only exchange letters with him. And he was the one who initially had been thought of as
the politician who could possibly bring down the Lukashenko regime. You were his wife, a schoolteacher, and now here you are.
Along with him and Roman Protasevich, how are they doing? And how are you doing, given how personal this is for you?
TIKHANOVSKAYA: You know, our political prisoners and other -- those who are behind the bars because of the political -- political, vicious -- they
are in awful position in -- behind the bars, because their conditions of staying are awful.
People are sleeping on the floor and without mattresses. There are lack of fresh air. There are lack of normality. They are humiliated psychologically
and physically everyday. And we have a lot of women there, and who have (AUDIO GAP) on freedom. And, of course, the (INAUDIBLE) is all -- is awful.
As for me, the most I experience now is tiredness. But I understand that I can't stop, because I'm the same as all the Belarusians, are responsible
for those who are behind the bars now, who sacrificed with their freedom and health and lives just to give us opportunity to fight further.
And this is our responsibility. And we have to continue, maybe with the small steps, but just move forward.
GOLODRYGA: I know we'd mentioned the question of whether or not the U.S. would impose further sanctions, sanctions that you have suggested and
spoken about publicly.
Did the president offer any suggestion to fulfill one of your other requests, and that is supporting your movement financially?
TIKHANOVSKAYA: We are asking support for political prisoners, for their families.
We are asking support for relatives who continue to resist abroad. And I'm sure that this help will be increased in the nearest future.
GOLODRYGA: From the United States specifically?
GOLODRYGA: Final question for you.
I know that Lukashenko has definitely been boxed in over the last year. That is for sure. You have now met with more world leaders than he has. I
believe it's only three or four that he has met with. But for longer term, you are still not allowed -- you're not going back to your country. You are
living in another country for your own safety.
As someone who is the face of the opposition movement there, what is next for you? Can you lead this movement successfully, when you're not in the
TIKHANOVSKAYA: No, we are communicating to the people on the ground everyday. We understand what's going on inside Belarus.
And, no, I'm going to other countries looking for allies on behalf of all Belarusians. And I can't say that I'm leading this uprising, leading this
revolution because everybody in Belarus and in exile are leaders.
It's -- our task is to do what you can. I can visit other countries, meeting with a president and so on, but those who are in Belarus and making
very small, but so important step, doing not less than me. So, only our united activities will bring us to new elections.
GOLODRYGA: Well, I could say, once again, just to reiterate, that this was a meeting that no one expected, and it was quite surprising, and I'm sure
it may have been just as surprising to people back on the streets in Belarus and to Lukashenko himself there in Minsk.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.
TIKHANOVSKAYA: Thank you.
GOLODRYGA: Well, as I mentioned earlier, Russian security officers raided the home of Roman Dobrokhotov, editor of independent news site The Insider
Alexey Kovalev is a colleague of Dobrokhotov, and he oversees the investigative reporting at the Meduza new site, and joins me now from
I can see you now, Alexey. We have got our signals working. Thank you so much for joining us.
Before we talk about what's going on, on the ground there in Moscow, I'm just curious to get your response to this surprising meeting between
Tikhanovskaya and Biden yesterday, just from the perspective of the Kremlin and how it's being received in Russia.
ALEXEY KOVALEV, INVESTIGATIONS EDITOR, MEDUZA: Oh, of course.
Yes, I mean, of course, if you look at the Russian state media, they are incredibly denigrating about this. And there is a whole genre there in the
Russian state media news agencies of making mockery of these meetings between the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus with Americans, because, well,
the whole point of it is -- of this coverage is to make sure that the viewers understand that the leaders of these countries are not sovereign,
they are all American lackeys.
So that's what's going on, basically.
GOLODRYGA: And this is all happening right when we have another meeting coming up in the White House with Ukrainian President Zelensky. I believe
that's scheduled to take place next week.
GOLODRYGA: I can only imagine how the Russian state media will be covering that.
But in terms of what independent journalists are covering, for people like yourself and your colleagues, it's becoming more and more of a dangerous
occupation. As we mentioned, Roman Dobrokhotov, who was the editor in chief of The Insider -- and we should just note that The Insider works very
closely with Bellingcat, who did that bombshell investigative report, along with CNN, right, to track down the origins and who was behind the poisoning
of Alexei Navalny.
His home was raided. His phone was taken. It does appear, as I'm following Russian media every single day, that this is becoming something that
happens quite frequently. And, from your perspective, given that this happened to Meduza as well -- they have been labeled a foreign agent -- how
much further, how much worse can things get?
KOVALEV: Oh, they can get much, much worse.
I mean, look at Belarus. I mean, we're not there yet. We're probably a few months behind. But I'm really -- most of us are really past the point of
being afraid. It's -- right now, it's just incredibly tiring. Every morning, I'm waking up and checking my phone to see if there are any
ongoing raids, just first to make sure that the police are not ramming down my door or the doors of my parents.
Next, I'm checking if there are ongoing raids on my colleagues. And if not, so I'm thinking, so what am I going to do today? Am I going to do any
actual public service journalism? Or am I going to document the demise of my own industry?
And it's just -- it's just really frustrating. I was just talking with a colleague who also -- who had to shut down kind of preemptively before
being declared a foreign agent, because they heard through the grapevine that that's probably what's going to happen in the nearest future, and they
shut down their media organization.
And we were discussing this. And we were -- we both thought just it's really frustrating to be spending the best years, the most productive years
of our professional lives on this, because it's not just the -- being afraid of those raids. These laws, these foreign agent law -- and one
organization was even declared an undesirable organization, like Proekt, another investigative outlet
And they just really had to evacuate their employees out of the country, because it's now simply illegal for anyone to work with them or even post
links to the Web site.
GOLODRYGA: Well, I was going to say, the one commonality seems to be that they are at times critical and objective when it comes to reporting on
domestic affairs, specifically the Kremlin.
Can you give our viewers an indication of what it means to be labeled a foreign agent, an undesirable? I follow your Web site. And perhaps many
people don't. They should. But it does come with many warnings now that just really are an eyesore.
KOVALEV: Well, it's designed to be so.
I mean, and it's also a legal mine field. So, after I check my phone for any ongoing raids in the homes of my colleagues, during the day, I will
have to check every story I file and upload on the Web site to make sure that I really put all those ugly legal disclaimers on the names of all
those other organizations that have been declared undesirable or extremist, to make sure that I'm not fined for omitting this disclaimer.
And it's by design. It's there -- these laws to make sure that our jobs are as absurdly difficult as they can be, to discourage us from doing this job
in the first place. That's the whole point.
And they will tell you -- the Kremlin will tell you that the Russian foreign agent law is really just -- is really just a model and is really
just a carbon copy of the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the United States.
But, of course, unlike FARA, which is only applied to lobbyists of powerful industry groups or governments, Russian foreign agents -- foreign agents
law is applied to individual persons. And it's designed to make their jobs harder, to drive them out of the profession, and to rob them of their
livelihoods, because I'm seeing messages on Facebook from people who have been declared, individual persons who have been declared foreign agents
here in Russia.
And it's just -- in July alone, I think it's just 13 people already have been declared foreign agents, and they can't work join in journalism
anymore. So people are looking for jobs outside of journalism, because no one will employ them now, because it's just too legally dangerous.
GOLODRYGA: Or they leave the country, right, which I guess is another intent there, another wish for many in the Kremlin.
KOVALEV: Oh, yes.
GOLODRYGA: Can you explain what this means or how it's being perceived by average Russians who may not be so tuned in with the field of journalism,
but perhaps aren't just watching state media either?
KOVALEV: Well, there has been an incredible wave of support for Meduza.
We were declared foreign agents in April. And the wave of support -- we were just really thinking of closing shop and just going away, because it's
just -- who knows what's going to happen to us?
But, no, actually, dozens of thousands of people wrote to us and donated money to our crowdfunding campaign. So we keep going. So it's really,
really encouraging. So it means that people really need us.
But, at some point, I mean, it's -- that was back in April. Since then, dozens of people have been declared foreign agents. And two organizations,
one of them was also declared on top of that, an undesirable organization.
And as time goes, people can donate money to one of their favorite Web sites, maybe two, maybe three, but when it's a dozen of them, two dozens,
it's just -- there is only so many -- so much resource that people can -- so much support and physical resource that people can donate.
KOVALEV: But that's the whole point. Yes.
GOLODRYGA: And there's no coincidence of the timing too. We're just weeks away from the Duma elections there, the parliamentary elections in Russia.
Just a few days ago, the Russian federal censor blocked Navalny, Alexei Navalny's main site, along with 40-plus other sites that are associated
Can you talk about the significance of that alone, and not allowing average ordinary Russians to be able to go to such sites as they are thinking about
who they are going to vote for in September?
KOVALEV: Well, of course, not only Alexei Navalny himself is in prison. But, of course, his -- all of his closest supporters have been barred from
running in these elections, but not just that.
Now it's -- because his organization is, for all intents and purposes illegal in Russia, anyone who's ever been associated with them in any way,
donated money to them or volunteered for one of their campaigns, and that is hundreds of thousands of people, all of these people too have been
disenfranchised from running in these elections.
So even anyone from the so-called systemic parties, and that means those that are sitting in the Parliament and have the unspoken support of the
Kremlin, even if you belong to one of those parties, and you expressed support for Alexei Navalny, you will also be barred from running. So that's
where we are now.
And that is -- any contact whatsoever, any expression of support for Alexei Navalny will put you on the Kremlin's naughty list.
GOLODRYGA: I am -- I have been, as I mentioned, following Russian news there closely.
And I have to say, even the most negative of analysts there who were jaded going into this year and Alexei Navalny's return are still stunned by how -
- the speed at which this crackdown has taken place.
And, just lastly, can you put it in a global perspective for us? There are so many issues on the agenda between President Biden and Vladimir Putin,
especially those that impact Americans and our allies.
But can you explain to our viewers why this crackdown is so detrimental to Russia and its future and why more of the world should be paying attention?
KOVALEV: OK, so imagine that the only news will you will be getting from one of the largest countries in the world is just statements from the
Russian Foreign Ministry and news briefs from Russian state media, and that's going to be it, because that's where we are heading right now.
And I don't think it's a healthy situation at all. And so, of course, I mean, it doesn't -- there is no other scenario now. If we are heading in
the same direction we are heading now, there is no -- there is no good -- there is no winning scenario in this for anyone, because it means, just
like 30 years ago, in the Soviet Union, it means that the country is heading towards swift, gradual decline.
And that doesn't bode well for anyone, for its closest neighbors, for the West or anyone.
GOLODRYGA: It makes the world a more dangerous place.
I just think about an article you wrote where your mom warned you when you came back to Russia, why did you come back? And you said the heyday, that
the future of journalism was going to be there in Russia. And I hate to see your mom being proven right on this issue.
But we, of course, will continue to follow this story and your reporting.
Alexey Kovalev, thank you so much for joining us.
KOVALEV: Thank you.
GOLODRYGA: Well, we're going to switch gears now to the Olympics.
American gymnast Suni Lee celebrated her gold medal in women's gymnastics in Tokyo today, extending the run of five all-around Olympic gold for Team
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SUNI LEE, U.S. OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST: This medal definitely means a lot to me, because there was a point in time where I wanted to quit, and I just
didn't think I would ever get here, including injuries and stuff.
So there are definitely a lot of emotions, but I'm super proud of myself for sticking with it and believing in myself, because this medal would not
be possible without my coaches, the medical team, my parents, and it just is so surreal. And I haven't even let it sink in yet.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: Such a powerful moment, especially to hear that she is proud of herself for all of that hard work.
Lee's teammate Simone Biles cheered her on from the sidelines after withdrawing from competition this week to protect her mental health. For
elite athletes like Lee or Biles, psychological issues can cause real physical harm.
Dr. Colleen Hacker is a mental skills coach for Olympic athletes and an authority on the psychology of peak performance.
Dr. Hacker joins us live.
Welcome to the program, Dr. Hacker.
And I think it is so important to begin there and talk about how related mental health is with physical health, because Simone Biles was asked how
she is feeling physically. And she said: Physically, I'm fine.
But we know there is a connection with mental health and physical health. Can you explain that?
DR. COLLEEN HACKER, U.S. OLYMPIC MENTAL SKILLS COACH: Absolutely.
And I just am smiling at and marveling at that interview with our newest gold medalist.
HACKER: I mean, it's incredible.
And without a question, the physical excellence is inextricably linked to psychological resilience and to mental health. We don't come at performance
as compartmentalized human beings.
We don't perform in the Olympic Games with just our bodies. We are integrated. It is our entire selves. And I will say, quite frankly, at the
Olympic Games or any major competition, everything is a performance issue. Every aspect that affects our lives as human beings comes with us to the
GOLODRYGA: So talk about the role that you play, the critical role.
You have worked with soccer teams, ice hockey, and U.S. women's swimming as well. What do you do with these athletes? And how do you coach them, along
with their trainers, their physical trainers, how do you coach them to maintain their mental health?
Well, there is always a team behind the team. There's always a team behind each individual athlete. I have been fortunate to serve on six Olympic
Games' coaching staffs, and, as you mentioned, in a variety of sports, and then worked with a significant number of individual Olympians.
What I bring to the equation, I'm a certified mental performance consultant, and I'm listed in the United States Olympic and Paralympic
Sport Psychology Registry.
And my focus is on the performance enhancement side. So, I work with athletes around issues like dealing with the pressure, dealing with the
distractions that are common in the Olympic Games, imagery, for example. We know from research that 97 percent to 98 percent of Olympic athletes use
imagery on a consistent basis. We work on their self-talk, on their breathing techniques, mindfulness.
And so, a whole host of variables along the performance enhancement will alongside, folks like me, (INAUDIBLE) enhancement side are all clinical
sports psychologists that work with athletes around people issues. So, these are the things, like clinical anxiety that we're talking about now,
trauma, eating disorders, suicide ideation, testing positive for COVID, substance abuse.
So, these two groups of professionals work hand in hand, the performance enhancement side and the mental health side. I'm on one side of the
equation, and I'm fortunate to work with many of the best in the world at their particular craft.
GOLODRYGA: I was following some of the lessons that you encourage your athletes to try and four-square or the breathing, taking in four breaths
and drawing a square on your stomach. I felt like that was very therapeutic in the moment that I tried it myself.
The significance of Simone Biles, we talk about teachable moments, but to have the greatest gymnast of all time, arguably, the face of U.S. Olympics,
bow out gracefully, talk about the need to focus on her mental health, and then tweet today, the outpouring love and support I've received has made me
realize I'm more than my accomplishments in gymnastics, which I never truly believed before.
Without going too far here and taking away from the games, is this just an ah-ha moment for spectators, for athletes for the world to see that even
the most accomplished of champions and athletes has these struggles?
HACKER: Without question. My first Olympic Games were in the 1996 Olympic Games, and while we knew that athletes are human beings first, and I say
that because every potential issue that we face as human beings, as non- Olympians are part of Olympians lives.
So, current estimates are anywhere from 15 percent to 30 percent of Olympic athletes are or have experienced mental health issues at some point in
their lives. That mirrors the data from the general population. But in '96, it was -- how do I say this? -- on the back shelf. It was known, but
You didn't hear athletes coming forward, you didn't hear coaches discussing the need for this. There wasn't a cultural or societal shift. We have seen
over the course of my career not just a gradual shift, but an exponential growth in athletes' willingness to be honest and vulnerable and to share
with the world, in my view, that they come at performance as entire human beings. And that means that they are more willing to talk about their
mental health issues.
You know, this is not new, and when I say this, I mean, that sport and athletics sort of leading the world into a new era of understanding and
interest. It's -- athletes frequently change agents, whether it's social issues or health and fitness issues, or in these Olympic Games, mental
health issues. So, I just cannot celebrate or compliment these Olympians, for many people it began with Michael Phelps, and then Naomi Osaka, and
then Simone Biles, and they are normalizing and they are naming the reality of mental health as part of life and part of the performance domain. I
cannot celebrate them enough.
GOLODRYGA: Right. And it's coughing us to revisit some of the things that we had seen transpire in Olympics past, right? You think about the 1996
Olympics, Dominique Moceanu tweeted this just yesterday in response to Simone Biles' decision, her brave decision, and she was applauding her. She
said, I was 14 years old with a tibial stress fracture, left alone with no cervical spine exam after the fall. I competed in the Olympic floor final
minutes later. I never felt I had a say as an Olympian.
She could have broken her neck. I remember watching that and her falling on her head. Kerry Strug said the same thing, that heroic moment where she
landed on one food, she -- I come to find out that that wasn't even something she needed to compete in for them to win a medal, and yet she
did. How important is it for us as spectators and for you as a coach and for Olympians and for athletes to look back at these moments and learn from
them as well moving forward?
HACKER: We do need to revisit history. We do need to revisit our awareness of what actually transpired versus the portrayal of what transpired. And I
think that, too, is a seminal moment for viewers, because I honestly believe that for the last 36 hours, 48 hours, I believe the viewing public
is learning for the first time the reality of the competitive situation in different sports, for differently athletes, in different Olympic Games.
We thought we knew. We thought we knew. We thought we understood the narrative. And then we sort of mythologize it. We make heroes and heroines
of these moments. What I can tell you, quite frankly, I have never worked with USA gymnastics, so I want to make that clear. But I can tell you that
those on the inside do know an alternative narrative. They are aware of these realities. But there is such tremendous pressure. And I cannot
emphasize the very real consequences of speaking out and coming forward.
And so, it's just easier to be silent. It's just easier to accept the narrative. This is why you hear previous Olympians. This is why you hear
the outpouring of support from athletes on the professional side and the Olympics side recognizing these moments as the true heroic moments. They
are authentic, they are brave, they are true, they are honest. And I think most of us would be better served to understand the true story rather than
the varnished story.
GOLODRYGA: Yes. And perhaps that's why the International Olympics Committee was so quick to come out and say they're offering a 24-hour
hotline available in 70 languages to help safeguard these players, these athletes, and they're going to have somebody there who will be of
assistance if they need someone to talk to.
Very quickly before you go, can you just finish this sentence for me? Because everybody, athletes and everyday people have butterflies. You say
butterflies are important to have, but what?
HACKER: Absolutely. Any time we do something that's important and meaningful and the outcome matters, we all experience butterflies. I don't
want people to get rid of the butterflies, I want them to learn how to get those butterflies to fly in formation.
GOLODRYGA: I love that. I love that and I love your love pillow behind you. Dr. Hacker, it's been wonderful talking to you. And very teachable
moments as we watch these Olympians. Thank you so much.
Well, now, to the pandemic. Today, President Biden will announce a vaccination requirement for federal workers. This as vaccine hesitancy
persists, despite the rapid spread of the Delta variant. In Tennessee, where only 39 percent are fully inoculated, Republican senators are urging
people to get protected. Dr. Michelle Fiscus says that she was fired from States Health Department. Here she is speaking to Hari Sreenivasan
alongside critical care doctor, Jason Martin, about all of the controversy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HARI SREENIVASAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Bianna, thanks. Dr. Michelle Fiscus, Dr. Jason Martin, thank you both for joining us.
First, Dr. Fiscus, for our audience numbers who haven't been attention to what's been happening in Tennessee, why are you now the former medical
director of the Tennessee Vaccine and Immunization Program? What led to that?
DR. MICHELLE FISCUS; FORMER MEDICAL DIRECTOR, TENNESSEE VACCINE AND IMMUNIZATION PROGRAM: Well, thanks for having me on, Hari.
I sent out a memo to our COVID-19 vaccine providers in Tennessee, letting them know about the mature minor doctrine in Tennessee, which has been in
place since 1987, and allows that children ages 14 and older can seek medical care on their own without parental consent if their medical
provider feels that that individual is mature enough to make those decisions.
SREENIVASAN: What were you trying to accomplish?
FISCUS: Well, the memo that I sent out was in response to requests for information from those very providers who wanted to know, what do I do if a
15-year-old drives up, you know, with some friends and asks for a vaccine, can we provide it to them or not? And so, I reached out to our Office of
General Counsel for that language and shared that. And that is what some of our legislators felt was trying to undermine parental authority, in which
eventually led to my termination from the department.
SREENIVASAN: Now, the chief medical officer of the state, I want to read a quote here, they said, this is because of "failure to maintain good working
relationships with members of her team, her lack of effective leadership, her lack of appropriate management and unwillingness to consult with
superiors and other internal stakeholders on projects." What do you say to that?
FISCUS: Well, I sent an eight-page point-by-point rebuttal to that information that was released. Interesting that that letter that was dated
July the 9th was not shared with me at my termination on July the 12th. And there are aspects of that letter that are demonstrably false, for example,
the claim that I didn't consult with legal counsel before sending out the mature minor doctrine letter to providers. And actually, the information
that I sent out was provided to me by the Office of General Counsel, the Department of Health.
SREENIVASAN: And, Dr. Martin, how often does something like this get so heated, so political, in your time as a doctor in Tennessee?
DR. JASON MARTIN, CRITICAL CARE PHYSICIAN: Yes, this is the hottest I've ever seen the political rhetoric in the State of Tennessee, and certainly
the most consequential rhetoric that I've witnessed in my practice of medicine.
I mean, the disruption that's taking place with our chief vaccine officer and the Department of Health could not have come at a worse time for
Tennesseans, it's a time when, unfortunately, vaccination adoption has been low for multiple reasons, mainly because of the messaging from the
executive, I think, has been insufficient. But also, we have the spread of the Delta variant.
And so, we have this huge unvaccinated population that's susceptible to this increasingly infectious and deadly variant. And so, you know, the
destruction from a political angle couldn't come at a worse time for us.
SREENIVASAN: Dr. Fiscus, put Tennessee in perspective for us. I mean, I've heard that the vaccination rate is about 10 percent lower than the national
average. I mean, what is the goal that you would want to see Tennessee at and how can you change people's minds at this point?
FISCUS: Well, I want to see every eligible Tennessean who can get vaccinated get vaccinated. You know, I think we lose perspective about the
toll that this pandemic has taken, that we've lost more lives than we have in any pandemic over the last 100 years, including the 1918 influenza
We are crushing our health care system, our health care workers and our public health infrastructure. I am the 25th of 64 immunization directors
across the country to either leave or lose their job over the course of the pandemic. So, that's critical public health infrastructure that's being
lost at a very critical time.
It's -- in Tennessee, and I think in a lot of the southern states, we find ourselves in public health at this very uncomfortable spot where we're
trying to share CDC guidance and encourage people to follow CDC guidance, but then we have a group of citizen legislators and elected officials who
are more interested in appealing to their base and their voters and thinking about their next political win than they are about looking at
what's going to save the people who are actually voting for them.
SREENIVASAN: Dr. Martin, it seems like there's a direct consequence when public health officials like Dr. Fiscus and her peers across the country
are either leaving their professions or being fired or pushed out, it seems that's the preventive side of medicine. And when that doesn't work, they
show up at your door.
MARTIN: That's right. I mean, it's a tragedy that we're losing so much institutional expertise because we really need that expertise right now to
get us through this pandemic. And when the preventive side of the equation falls apart, then that fills up our hospitals and that leads to more death
and more tragedy.
SREENIVASAN: Dr. Fiscus, what was the Public Health Department doing to try to decrease hesitancy in specific communities that have lower rates?
FISCUS: Well, our office or TVH's (ph) Office Minority Health and Disparities Elimination has done a yeoman's work in being on the ground and
working with faith-based communities and organizations across the state to help get hesitant populations, for example, our black or Hispanic
populations vaccinated, and has just done a tremendous amount of work, as have all of the local departments of health.
Where we weren't successful in being able to message out was just public, general public messaging about the importance of the vaccine, about
messages to build vaccine confidence across the state. We had asked the governor's office for that kind of public messaging from months before the
vaccines were ever available in Tennessee, and we just were never permitted to put out any kind of messaging.
And so, public messaging around getting the vaccine really didn't even hit airwaves in Tennessee until sometime around the middle of May,
unfortunately. When we could have been building that vaccine confidence for months, even prior to vaccines becoming available to Tennesseans.
SREENIVASAN: Dr. Martin, the hesitation that you are still seeing, what are the reasons that people are coming up with to you when they end up in
the hospital and you or your colleagues ask them, why didn't you get vaccinated?
MARTIN: You know, after we build a rapport with patients, I often do respectfully ask them, you know, why didn't you get the vaccine? Because,
you know, here you are in this life-threatening situation. And we have data that shows that there's basically a preventive medication, why didn't you
take it? And they tell me that they just didn't think it was going to happen to them.
You know, the populations that we're seeing right now are younger than the previous wave. And so, I feel like they thought they were going to get
through this without having any significant trouble. And so, they're surprised, they're shocked, they're saddened by what's happening.
We had a 20-year-old -- a patient in their 20s coming into the hospital and that patient was, you know, crying on my shoulder, basically saying that
they wished they had gotten the vaccine because they realize now that it would save them from, you know, potentially dying.
And, you know, that is -- when you hold the hands of someone like that who is critically ill, and you -- you can't take it away from them. You know,
all you can do is do your best with the therapies you have on hand. But it's just a sorrow that you cannot describe to see someone suffering that
way when it's completely preventable.
You know, at the beginning of this pandemic, there was loss of life that was, I think, inevitable. But now, we know what to do and that makes the
loss of life so much more tragic when politics, raw politics is affecting folks' adoption of this life-saving intervention.
SREENIVASAN: Dr. Fiscus, are you surprised that some of these rumors and conspiracies are still so persistent, so late in this pandemic?
FISCUS: I'm dismayed by that and, you know, there are so many rumors not just about this vaccine, but about other childhood vaccines that are
critical to the health of children as well. But I think, you know, the other thing in Tennessee, and I think in a lot of our southern states
that's happening, is this ideology that if you get this vaccine, you're somehow placating the left part of the political spectrum.
And so, what we're actually seeing is our most hesitant population in Tennessee is the white male rural conservative and that they are stating
that they're not going to get the vaccine, really, out of spite, and are willing to put their own lives and the lives of people that they love at
risk because they feel that if they get the vaccine, then they have, you know, placated the left or done what the Biden administration wants them to
SREENIVASAN: You know, Dr. Martin, when I speak to other doctors here in New York or elsewhere, I also detect a shift in the tone that there was a
greater amount of patience and understanding at the beginning of the pandemic. And now, frankly, there's exasperation, fatigue, even a lack of
sort of empathy fatigue, perhaps, just -- that's setting in saying, come on, you've had access now. And now here you are and your beds are filling
MARTIN: That's right. Let me sort of describe the arc of emotions over the last 16 months. I mean, it's been an extraordinary time. I would say the
beginning of the pandemic was filled with fear and anticipation and sadness, and also determination to get through it. And, you know, your
health care providers, we spent, you know, most of our lives over the last 16 months in the hospital, you know, putting our own personal safety at
risk to try to get people through this.
And, you know, we held up a lot of iPads while moms and dads and brothers and sisters, you know, waled at the loss of their loved ones remotely. I
can't describe to you how impactful those moments are. You know, it's just -- if you've never been there, you know, I really want to convey to people,
it is incredibly impactful to everybody in the room, the family, the patient, obviously, the health care providers.
And then, as we worked through that over the subsequent year, really, we got to a place a couple of months ago where we felt like we had succeeded.
We got down to zero COVID patients in the hospitals that I work at.
And so, now, we feel COVID creeping back into our community. We see sick people coming in again. We're having to intubate patients again and cry
with their loved ones as they pass away again. And we're just thinking, it doesn't have to be this way. Why are we doing this again? There is a fix to
this problem. It's widely available. It's free. It's safe. Why can't people stand up, speak the truth, and make it a priority to save the health and
life of Tennesseans by telling people to get this vaccine?
SREENIVASAN: Dr. Fiscus, I know you're a trained pediatrician and you might go back to doing this. Right now, there's a lot of parents around the
country concerned, especially with children who are under 12, saying, is this a crap shoot here? I mean, should I be sending my child back to a
building? Will a mask be enough? Are kids stronger than adults? I mean, even if the data says that there's very few kids that get very badly sick,
a parent says, well, I don't want my child to be that one in a million, right?
FISCUS: Right. And it's not one in a million that gets very sick here in Tennessee, we've had 200 kids that have fallen victim to multi-system
inflammatory syndrome in children, which puts these kids in intensive care units, on dialysis, on ventilators, gives them what may be permanent heart
damage. You know, that's way more common than one in a million type of issue.
You know, for parents who have children who are -- have children who are 12 and older, they need to get them vaccinated. And for those that are not
eligible yet, hopefully we're going to get FDA UA soon for that, at least, the 5 to 11 group. But I would not be sending my child to school without a
Even if they're vaccinated, you know, these children are going to be sitting in small spaces, seven and a half hours a day, unable to distance
themselves from the people around them, and those that are 11 and under are really, you know, really sitting ducks with this Delta variant that is more
infectious and more -- is causing more illness in children, and we're seeing that, you know, across the states with children being admitted,
being admitted to intensive care units, where we didn't see that earlier in the pandemic with the initial strains.
MARTIN: You know, Dr. Fiscus, that seems to be one of these sorts of sticking points with people who are against vaccinations, oh, look, the CDC
said we didn't need masks, then they said we did. And then, now, they said, we didn't and then here they are saying we do again.
FISCUS: It's hard. And it's really hard for the public because, you know, no science is ever settled. And it's really important that the public is
listening to credible sources of information and understands that it's a good thing that recommendations are changing, because that means we're
What's unfortunate is when we hear elected officials say, we won't issue another mask mandate or we won't close down the economy again, because we
don't know what things are going to look like in two or three or four weeks from now.
And so, to make those declarations when we don't know what Delta is going to do and Lambda after that, and understanding that until we get everyone
vaccinated, we're going to continue to see these more and more virulent strains come through, we have got to be nimble in our response to this. And
hopefully, the public will begin to understand that.
SREENIVASAN: Dr. Martin, what has this been like for you and what is the toll that it has taken on you? How do you measure that? How does your
family, if I was asking them five years from now, what did COVID do to Jason Martin?
MARTIN: It's been awful. And, you know, as part of my job as a critical care physician, I'm accustomed to dealing with death, but not this much.
Not this much death. It seems every day I have to, you know, hold up an iPad and listen to someone say good-bye. You know, and this is not just me,
it's all the folks on the front lines. I mean, you know, it's hard to be positive and chipper when you go home after, you know, a really bad day in
the ICU. It's hard to be present for your kids when you're emotionally struggling. So it's a very difficult journey for us, but we're committed to
SREENIVASAN: Dr. Fiscus, this week New York took a step, Governor Cuomo said state employees here, that they had to be vaccinated. And you even had
the governor of Alabama who said outright that it's the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down. I mean, what combination, Dr. Fiscus, is going to
work here, carrot stick, pressure? How do you get through and what do you want to see? Is that the right track?
FISCUS: Yes, I think it's the time for sticks in some cases. And, you know, to have health care professionals or individuals who are working in
nursing homes who have refused to be vaccinated who are putting not only themselves, but the patients that they're caring for at risk on a
continuing basis, is not acceptable. And, you know, there are other requirements when you work in health care. You can't smoke inside a
hospital, and if you want to smoke inside a hospital then you don't get to work there. This is the same kind of health threat.
And so, requiring health care workers, requiring federal workers, requiring state workers to be vaccinated or find another role for their employment, I
think, is something where, you know, we're there at this point, because the other things just haven't gotten -- especially states like Tennessee, to
get those vaccination numbers up yet.
SREENIVASAN: Dr. Michelle Fiscus, Dr. Jason Martin, thank you both.
MARTIN: Thank you so much.
FISCUS: Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: Such an important conversation.
And finally, San Marino has become the smallest nation to win an Olympic medal. Alessandra Perilli shot her way to bronze in women's trap shooting.
The medal is an Olympic first for San Marino. And earlier this week, Flora Duffy scored a similar achievement for Bermuda striking gold in the women's
triathlon. Congratulations to all winners big and small countries alike.
Well, that is it for now. You can always catch us online, on our podcast and across social media. Thank you so much for watching and good-bye from