There’s no good time to be stingy about public health. It costs more, and it kills our own.
The Center for Disease Control budget was stripped for years. Congress treated whatever we couldn’t enjoy tomorrow as a waste and political pariah. That’s also true of our infrastructure, needed improvements to the electrical grid and the internet system. All have the capacity to be deadly when left without repairs and upgrades.
Cuomo’s father had a Commissioner of Health on our son’s paper route. Our sons were in the same scout troop. But what I really liked about David Axelrod was that he made NY healthier. You could smell the difference when you traveled. NY had smoke free rooms, hotels, and buildings before it caught on elsewhere. I also knew the lawyer suing Cuomo over the cigarette rules. His clients apparently thought heaven should forbid anyone or any companies from having to change their behavior for the public good. But David made our lives better.
Stingy politicians who stripped public health agencies of money and authority caused many of our troubles. Public health agencies should have power to take poison out of the air and water — but no, we have to convince legislators first. Public health agencies ought to have power to protect forests that remove carbon from the air — but, no, that’s a big political issue because some people would have to change their behavior for the public good.
A big issue a few years ago was that some state coastal commissions wanted to block building on the dunes in order to minimize flood damage. But the Rehnquist Court said no. Some people might have to change their behavior for the public good.
How expensive is the new corona virus? We’re going into a major national depression because of it. All of us will pay, not by pulling green bills out of our pockets, but because green bills won’t be in our pockets, bank accounts or credit cards to pull out. This is going to be very expensive.
But pandemics will happen again because we live too close to natural habitats. They will happen again because a warming climate will nurse new pathogens. And they will happen again because manufacturers, agribusinesses, oil companies and other extractive industries don’t want to take account of nature, the environment or the implications of their behavior on our health. If what we mean by freedom is the freedom to sicken everyone because we are too busy making short term profits, then we have freedom to die – not with dignity, but freedom to die young, sick and quarantined from everyone we love.
It’s our choice – either we agree to live by healthy business and manufacturing rules or we die by unhealthy ones. And one extra step – all changes have winners and losers. We have to be willing to find or create jobs and educational opportunities like we did with the GI bill for those who are disadvantaged by the changes. Our shelter-in-place rules for dealing with the current virus has winners and losers. We are all in this together and we have to be willing to bring everyone along somehow. That’s not charity; it’s necessary and it’s just plain fair.
And let’s be clear, taking care of public health, taking care of each other, is crucial for all of us, for our economy, for our standing and our leverage in the world. Public health is part of national security. It’s not optional.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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