Public Health, the Pandemic, and Congressman John Lewis
It’s an odd combination for a title, I know, but bear with me.
As the debate continues over mask-wearing in the middle of the pandemic, something has started to bother me. I think I’ve realized that Americans as a whole don’t understand the concept of “public health.” We live in an era governed by an awareness of environmental protection, green energy initiatives, and seat belts. But somewhere along the way, we’ve taken for granted the concept of a mutual health, whose oversight we’ve delegated to public health officials who then quietly just take care of things.
Let’s examine what we mean by public health. As usual, I turn to Wikipedia:
Public health has been defined as “the science and art of preventing disease”, prolonging life and improving quality of life through organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals. Analyzing the determinants of health of a population and the threats it faces is the basis for public health.
It’s more than the fact that our beloved trash and recycling workers wake us up early in the morning once a week to take away our castoffs, it’s the fact that most of America can turn on the tap and drinkable water pours forth. It’s the fact that we have the option to get a flu shot or skip it. But now, the entire world faces a pandemic, the likes of which we have not seen in over 100 years.
So we face an adjustment to our lives unlike anything with which we’ve ever had to comply. It’s simply mind-blowing that just going to the grocery store or to the beach, unprotected, can ultimately be the causal factor for our death. Our brains simply cannot compute that fact. But it is very real. As of this writing, we in the USA have over 3,630,000 reported cases of COVID-19, and almost 139,000 lives lost. It’s simply more than we can grasp.
So as it becomes clear that wearing face coverings, washing our hands rigorously, and staying/working from home are the best ways to reduce the opportunity for coronavirus to spread, we continue to hear about people who individualize that decision (“it’s my right not to wear one”). Apparently the idea of not just protecting ourselves — but consciously, deliberately taking action to care for others — has gotten lost in the discussion.
We advocate for clean water and protection for animals, but somehow we’ve lost the idea that we are to care for each other, not just from a personal or faith-based point of view, but also as a society. When did we forget that we are citizens of a country where children are taught in school get along and to care for each other? Actually having “public health” depends on that mutual caring. Over the last 5 months, that truth has had to hit us over the head hard to get our attention. Are we listening?
This is where Congressman John Lewis enters our conversation. In my personal life, I work on racial justice issues, and my awareness of Congressman Lewis’ role in the civil rights movement has come sharply into focus for me over the last 3 years. As I watched a program this past weekend that chronicled his life and contributions to our country, it occurred to me that John Lewis was the manifestation of the civil rights movement in government. He worked tirelessly — sometimes quietly and sometimes ferociously — towards the goal of equal rights. John Lewis is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have become had Dr. King lived long enough to go into public service.
In one of the video clips of a public speech he made, I heard John Lewis say, “We are our brother’s keeper.” For me, that’s it; that’s the truth of what we’re missing about this pandemic, and the country as a whole. Whether you come from a faith-based family as I did or you have never set foot in a house of worship, if you’re here in America, you’re part of the society that was taught to care for each other.
- It’s crucial to public health.
- It’s not something we can delegate.
- It’s something we must do ourselves, individually.
So cover up America, let’s get through this the right way: by caring for each other.
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If you have questions about the pandemic itself, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a portion of their website devoted to COVID-19. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/
If you need face coverings for yourself and your family, check with your local city or county government websites; many localities are now offering free face masks to residents, to help them comply.
If you’re a business leader making decisions about how to handle a remote workforce during the pandemic and after, visit https://www.remoteleadershipsuccess.com for information and a free guide.
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 Winslow, Charles-Edward Amory (1920). “The Untilled Field of Public Health”. Modern Medicine. 2 (1306): 183–191. Bibcode:1920Sci….51…23W. doi:10.1126/science.51.1306.23. PMID 17838891.
 “What is Public Health”. Centers for Disease Control Foundation. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
 The Bible, book of Genesis 4:1–12.