Celebrating Public Health in a Time of Crisis

April 07, 2020|9:45 a.m.| Georges C. Benjamin, MD | Executive Director of the American Public Health Association

Georges C. Benjamin, MDWe celebrate the 25th anniversary of National Public Health Week (NPHW) at a time when we are confronting the biggest public health crisis of our time. Not since the HIV/AIDS pandemic has the entire world been so impacted by a new infectious disease. After a series of near misses—from years of planning and pandemics that never fully arrived—the pandemic we have been concerned about is here. It comes at a time of great political division in our country but NPHW affords us the opportunity to come together and conquer this serious health threat together. We can help lead the way through public health practice grounded in science with ethical and principled leadership.

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, which continues its stampede across America and around the world, has changed the ways we engage as a society. It has forced us to stay in our homes, maintain social distancing, and try to avoid infection. It has created a society that is now engaging virtually in most aspects of our lives. As public health practitioners we need to ensure that while we promote social distancing, we continue to enable social cohesion. This virtual existence is a new way of living and may dramatically change our approach to engagement even after this current threat is gone.

We have always said that when public health practitioners do their best work, nothing happens. But when something does happen, we must be prepared to act quickly to reduce the threat. COVID-19 represents such a threat to our collective health, and it requires our best work to mitigate it. National Public Health Week @ 25 is a time of celebration of our prior successes with a look toward what we need to do for the future in the face of the great COVID-19 pandemic. When this is over, we will need to have a thoughtful discussion with policy makers, resource allocators, and the public to once and for all build a robust, sustainable public health system. One that can adequately address these kinds of catastrophic health threats. It is critical for public health leaders – all of us – to engage our communities in this debate.

These are unusual times for sure. The COVID-19 pandemic has already claimed more lives than we can bear and there are grim estimates of potentially hundreds of thousands of more to come unless we convince people to invest in a well-resourced sustainable public health system.

From Italy to Spain and all across the United States, people are shut in but they are singing from their homes or hitting their car horns in celebration of the public health workers who are protecting them as well as the clinicians who care for them when they get sick. During NPHW we too want to celebrate each other in public health. We have a lot of people to thank, including folks who don’t even realize public health is part of their job: people who pick up our trash, the clerks in our grocery stores, and the public safety professionals that keep us safe. That’s just to name a few. This week, in the face of this severe health threat, we celebrate them as well. We are all public health today.

At the American Public Health Association: We believe in you, we thank you, we salute you. On the occasion of NPHW@25 let’s work together to conquer COVID-19, and when we are done lets work together as a nation to speak with one voice to make America a healthier nation.

Georges C. Benjamin, MD, is the executive director of the American Public Health Association.