At Least You Have Your Health

THERE ARE TIMES IN OUR LIVES WHEN ONLY ONE THING MATTERS. They are typically related to threats to our emotional or physical wellbeing.

We’ve all gone through a period in our lives like no other any of us can remember. We’ve not had to experience war on our own soil, but what we’ve endured with the threat to each of our lives in this COVID-19 era has been as traumatizing to some as war or terrorism in our backyard may be to many.

When we are threatened in such a way, we begin to reevaluate what is important to us, what we are prepared to do to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and how we will reprioritize our lives given a brush with mortality. Such emotional trauma to our national and familial psyche may well last longer than the threat of disease.

The term “disease” is descriptive. Its literal meaning is a state of chronic unease that demands remedy. At those times, the intervention may be quick and minor. For prolonged disease that affects many and threatens many more, an entire network of emotional and physical health care is invoked.

We don’t usually think of health care as a network, or our health as a right. This past year has put everything in perspective. It has changed how we work, how we relate to each other, whether we travel, and what we expect from government and our leaders. The COVID crisis made us reassess the balance between our individual lives and our livelihood. The equilibrium we have established over the past year and a half will be with us for some time.

And so will how we look at health care. No longer is health care simply an isolated intervention to heal a sore knee or treat a minor infection. Now, health care is a network of individuals who cure disease but also prevent its spread.

To counter the spread of disease requires a much more holistic view of health care. When an infectious disease ravages a community, much of our health care is public health. It is me protecting you from what I may be carrying, and vice versa. It is recognizing that the nurses, pharmacists, first responders, doctors, food service workers, and even taxicab drivers are all essential elements of our public health network.

In some ways, these myriad efforts seem self-directed, with each level of health care doing its part in a loosely coordinated way. But, behind the scenes, there is much more coordination. Drug stores become essential elements in testing and vaccinations. Trained health care professionals watch for symptoms and set the example for best practices. Of course, once one is ill, these frontline healthcare workers risk their own health to bring others back to health.

Meanwhile, our police officers and firefighters continue to protect us. They don’t have the luxury many have of lying low until the infection passes. Instead, they must be there when life is the most threatened. They take on a degree of risk for which they are trained and accustomed, but which none of us may ever experience. Even our dentists, our chiropractors and physical therapists, our mental health workers, and our personal care professionals are part of this network designed not only to keep individuals healthy but to help keep an entire community healthy during a pandemic.

We too play a part. Our community, before any other, began wearing simple cloth masks not just to protect ourselves but to protect each other. We did so with the guidance and good judgment of those who interpreted the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and our local public health experts to create a culture of healthful interactions based on social distancing.

As we begin to come out of this annus horribilis, we have a new and likely permanently altered sense of our responsibility not only for our own health but for the health of others. It changes my regard for your health because I now realize your health and healthy practices may actually affect me.

The United States invests a greater share of its Gross Domestic Product in health care than any other major nation. Certainly, this investment will rise as we now see the value of public health, of the strategic importance to have a domestic vaccine industry and emergency stockpiles of healthcare supplies, and of our mutual interdependence. Likely, government will be better prepared for the next pandemic than it was for this last one. These precautions won’t come cheap.

Like any of life’s challenges, we will emerge wiser, stronger and better prepared. We see the value and will never again view those whose vocation it is to take care of us in the same way. We may even have a healthy national debate over whether community health should be viewed as a right rather than a privilege given our increased awareness of our mutual interdependence. I welcome that reflection. I hope we can learn to trust and listen more closely to those whose careers revolve around our health. We may develop a greater faith in science and scientists whose only agenda is to improve information and understanding.

Things will be different from here on in. The phrase “a new normal” may be so worn to appear cliche, but it is also likely correct. Hopefully we can discover a new equilibrium in our human interactions that acknowledges there will be additional pandemics in the future — hopefully not the near future. Our muscle memory of the steps we took, and the interventions adopted by our health care professionals, will bode well if/when we must face such a challenge again.

Next time around, though, we will be more prepared, and better able to comprehend the role each of us must play. Meanwhile, I’m thankful for the health care professionals, of all sorts, who practiced their expertise to help keep us safer.

Dr. Colin Read is a professor of economics and finance at SUNY Plattsburgh School of Business & Economics.