During a pandemic, no one’s health is fully in their own hands. No field should understand that more deeply than public health, a discipline distinct from medicine. Whereas doctors and nurses treat sick individuals in front of them, public-health practitioners work to prevent sickness in entire populations. They are expected to think big. They know that infectious diseases are always collective problems because they are infectious. An individual’s choices can ripple outward to affect cities, countries, and continents; one sick person can seed a hemisphere’s worth of cases. In turn, each person’s odds of falling ill depend on the choices of everyone around them—and on societal factors, such as poverty and discrimination, that lie beyond their control.
Across 15 agonizing months, the COVID-19 pandemic repeatedly confirmed these central concepts. Many essential workers, who held hourly-wage jobs with no paid sick leave, were unable to isolate themselves for fear of losing their livelihood. Prisons and nursing homes, whose residents have little autonomy, became hot spots for the worst outbreaks. People in Black and Latino communities that were underserved by the existing health system were disproportionately infected and killed by the new coronavirus, and now have among the lowest vaccination rates in the country. Read More