When caring for two toddlers during the pandemic felt impossible, I took solace in knowing that raising children used to be considerably more difficult. During the early 20th century, infectious organisms in tainted food or fetid water exacted a frightening toll on children; in some places, up to 30 percent died before their first birthday. In those days, there was often little more to offer children suffering from dehydration and diarrhea than milk teeming with harmful bacteria or so-called soothing syrups laced with morphine and alcohol.
Since then, deaths during childhood went from commonplace to rare. Partly as a result, the average human life span doubled, granting us, on average, the equivalent of a whole extra life to live. The field of public health is primarily responsible for this exceptional achievement.
Medicine revolves around the care of individual patients; public health, by contrast, works to protect and improve the health of entire populations, whether small communities or large countries. This encompasses researching how to prevent injuries, developing policies to address health disparities, and, of course, tackling disease outbreaks.
George Whipple, a co-founder of the Harvard School of Public Health, proclaimed in 1914 in The Atlantic that “one of the greatest events of the dawning twentieth century is the triumph of man over his microscopic foes.” Even he’d likely be shocked by the success of public health over the past century.
But as the coronavirus pandemic wanes, the field of public health has come under a barrage of criticism. Some are calling to curtail the field’s power. Even many of public health’s strongest proponents are disappointed with how the profession navigated the pandemic.
While it is essential to learn from mistakes of the recent past, such rhetoric could have awful consequences. Our public-health workforce is already burdened by massive attrition. Simultaneously, a growing body of legislation and litigation is chipping away at public health’s ability to address current and future health threats. Politicians have accused health experts of being “wrong about almost everything” during the pandemic. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican who fundraised his reelection bid with “#FireFauci” ads, introduced a bill to eliminate the position that Anthony Fauci recently left at the National Institutes of Health and to split the agency in three.