The What: Investments in Public Health

Usually, this blog is more about the how of policy advocacy and social change, than the what.

I mean, sure, you know where I stand on a lot of issues.

But, for the most part, I use this space to talk about how we pursue change, how we organize, how we work with elected officials, how we use the vehicles available to us to pursue our visions of justice…whatever those visions of justice may, specifically, look like.

But, for this week, I’m turning to a list of post ideas that are more about what our policies should be, than about precisely how we get there.

Basically, they are issues that have been bugging me, and so here they are. It’s “the what” week, all week.

Today, I’m thinking about cholera.

We have the technology now to make devastating diseases like that history and, yet, they’re not.

All because we don’t invest as we should in sanitation, in public health information-sharing, in early detection, in research.

In other words, budget retrenchment could literally kill us.

The Ghost Map makes this point, when it calls London’s sewer system one of the great triumphs of the modern age.

Our technical capabilities today demonstrate that we can respond to environmental and health crises with massive projects that are feats of engineering and impressive displays of collective will.

Emphasis on the can.

Not necessarily the will.

Today, technology enables the city of New York to know that, during a power outage, people need information about safe insulin storage, because there’s a telephone system people can use to report problems and ask questions, and because those data can be collected and analyzed efficiently. As described in the book, we’re keeping ourselves safer and making our lives better by “amplify(ing) the voices of these local experts” (p. 225).

We can build maps online that show, immediately, where there’s an outbreak, or a water main break, or any other kind of natural or unnatural breakdown that threatens our health.

John Snow could not have imagined the capacity we take for granted today.

And, yet, there is a real risk that global economic policies will endanger all of our lives by forcing austerity measures on governments in the developing world. As they disinvest in public health, threats cross borders. Too many children in the U.S. fail to get critical immunizations–not just because their parents object, but also because too many of our children lack regular access to medical care. We need to update our waste-removal and recycling systems and ensure that our disease detection infrastructure is up to the task of evolving illnesses.

We have built the finest tools we can imagine, and our ability to use them continues to grow nearly exponentially, yet they will atrophy if we don’t continue to invest, in the hardware and software and people power needed.

That’s why we have to see our public spaces, and the revenue that sustains them, as critical investments in our collective well-being. Truly, combating dangerous retrenchment isn’t just about ‘quality of life’. It’s also just about life.

Taxes as anti-cholera insurance.

Maybe that’s a frame we should try.

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