Why isn’t public health more important to us?

Sam Smith – In recent days I’ve been reflecting on how poorly I was prepared for the current crisis by my presumed academic, economic,  political and spiritual leaders. For example, I can’t remember the possibility of a public health disaster being mentioned by any of my professors at Harvard and when I searched our own stories for some insight, I found this from 2009: “After meeting with Mr. Obama, Sen. Collins expressed concern about a number of spending provisions, including $780 million for pandemic-flu preparedness.”

We have all been trained instead to worry mainly about military invasions and economic crises.  And so we find ourselves stunningly unprepared to deal with a pandemic that has already caused in a few months 83% of the American deaths during four years of the Korean War. And even at the current height of the illness, our media and politicians are treating its economic effects as more important than the health issues themselves. Meanwhile, we spent $619 billion on our military last year as opposed to $11.9 billion for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention despite the soon to be realized public health fatalities.  

Consider that we lose more lives from heart disease or cancer each year than we did in World War II, World War I and Vietnam put together and you get a sense of how distorted our priorities have become. On the other hand, as I wrote back in 2009, you don’t “see the newspapers running headlines every winter proclaiming ‘30,000 Geezers Dead in Seasonal Flu Outbreak,’ or the president going on TV to say that the government would stop at nothing to protect granny from this dangerous virus. The fact that these things don’t happen, I think, is proof that the older we get, the less our lives are worth in this society.” 

One reason this pandemic has finally gotten a lot of coverage is because its victims include a lot of younger folk including hospital staff . And then there’s the danger of the economy.  As Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick put it , “There are more important things than living and that’s saving this country.” In his view we were born to serve the GDP.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons why human life isn’t that important to our elite, including, for example, the Supreme Court ruling a decade ago in Citizens United that corporations could – although it didn’t use the verb – buy elections. But perhaps the current experience will teach us to pay less attention to our leaders and more to the essentials of a good life – ranging from public health to a climate in which we and other creatures can survive.

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