Why are public-health experts focusing on protests—but not as much on social gatherings, funerals, work, or religious services? We hear you. People need public-health guidelines that can help them socialize, mourn their dead, worship, get back to work, and—yes—protest more safely. Americans can’t bubble-wrap themselves until there is a vaccine or a cure for this disease. People didn’t stop having sex in the 1980s in the face of AIDS: They opted for safer sex. Likewise, it’s time to start thinking about how to live sustainably with this new virus, which may be around for a very long time. Some public-health experts, including us, have been advocating for this approach since early May. Even so, people must remain open to the possibility that if a second wave of infections occurs, public-health officials may need to suggest stricter lockdown measures once again. The public-health approach must adapt to the changing nature of the pandemic and to the growing body of scientific evidence. Any new lockdown, though, needs to be smarter, more efficient, and more targeted than the first.
Ultimately, the critics of public-health experts are right about one thing: Public health does have an ideology, one that is rooted in the understanding that health is determined not only by physiology and pathogens, but also by social forces, including systemic racism. This idea isn’t new—it’s foundational to the field. As the physician Rudolf Carl Virchow said in 1848, during another period of great social upheaval: “Medical statistics will be our standard of measurement: We will weigh life for life and see where the dead lie thicker, among the workers or among the privileged.” If public-health experts ignored the social determinants of health, that omission would be cause for a loss of credibility.
In the midst of both a pandemic and a civil-rights uprising, ordinary Americans are trying to take care of one another in extraordinary ways—by socially distancing to prevent coronavirus transmission and by protesting the deadly legacy of white supremacy. No one who is truly concerned about the public’s health has the luxury of sitting on the sidelines of either of these fights.
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