Barry LevyToday’s guest post is by APHA member Barry S. Levy, MD, MPH, a physician, epidemiologist, adjunct professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine and a past APHA president. He dedicates this post to the memory of Bailus Walker Jr., PhD, MPH, also a past APHA president, who was a longtime advocate for environmental justice and public health.

The COVID-19 pandemic has starkly exposed what public health workers have known for years: We, as a society, have failed to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy.

As a society, we have failed to:

  • Value public health: Not providing necessary resources for federal, state and local public health agencies; not adequately supporting prevention of disease, injury and premature death; and unnecessarily politicizing public health issues — the consequences of these failures are now evident.
  • Address racism and other forms of social injustice: Condoning structural racism as well as inadequate health care for socially vulnerable populations and other health inequities — reflected, in part, by the significantly higher COVID-19 mortality rates among people of color.
  • Heed warnings to adequately prepare for health crises: Doing too little, too late for emerging threats to the health of the public: the opioid crisis, the climate crisis and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Support science and the roles of science-based public health agencies in policymaking: Not valuing and not adequately funding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other science-based institutions, and often letting public health policies be determined on the basis of inaccurate information and political ideology — as is now frequently occurring.
  • Make health care available and accessible to all: Creating barriers to diagnostic, treatment and preventive services for low-wage workers, immigrants and people who are impoverished, homeless, incarcerated or otherwise marginalized.
  • Address mental health needs: Not adequately addressing individual and community mental health needs or adequately building individual and community resilience — the consequences of which are now, and will continue to be, overwhelming as a result of the pandemic.
  • Protect workers: Weakening or not implementing occupational health and safety regulations and not providing adequate compensation, sick leave or other benefits for workers — as is now evident by the lack of personal protective equipment, unsafe working conditions and limited benefits for many health care, grocery, transportation, delivery and other essential workers.
  • Support global health: Abandoning our country’s leadership role, limiting cooperation with other countries, not adequately supporting the World Health Organization and failing to provide desperately needed public health assistance to low- and middle-income countries —with evolving catastrophic consequences during the pandemic.
  • Recognize the potential transmission of animal infections to humans: Not adequately understanding or preventing the transmission to humans of novel infections in animals, the likely source of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Put the public in public health: Not adequately engaging the public in public health, resulting in many adverse consequences, such as a failure to recognize that public health is essential for a healthy economy and a healthy society — a critically important understanding as our nation addresses the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters, one of which signifies “danger” and the other “opportunity.” The COVID-19 pandemic presents many dangers. But it also provides opportunities to address the ways in which we, as a society, have failed to protect the health of the public.

As we address the COVID-19 pandemic, let us find and create opportunities to improve public health and to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy.

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