Leveraging lessons learned

Dear President Trump,

It felt odd yesterday that there wasn’t some equivalent of a Town Crier cruising the streets at 5pm to announce the official start of our state’s shelter in place order. We tuned in to Representative Jayapal’s virtual 5pm Town Hall meeting so I suppose that was sort of similar, but still – the occasion was momentous enough that it seems like it should have been heralded in a way that everyone in the land could not possibly miss its official start. Instead, it was a quiet start to more quiet.

Lately one of the more disgusting things you’ve been doing (and trust me, there are so many that it’s truly hard to rank them all and pick something specific to highlight) is trotting out the annual number of traffic fatalities in the US and scoffing about how we don’t shut down all the roads or take away everyone’s car keys (or their phones) to stop these deaths so why should we shelter in place and tank the economy to prevent the spread of covid-19? There’ve been lots of smart, number- and logic-based responses to this cynical, misanthropic twist of yours so I’m not going to add to them. Rather, I want to lift up the idea that if (and I know this is still a big if) we can pull together to collectively and effectively address the major threat of the novel coronavirus, how about we bring that same energy and determination to other major public health threats?

We all know that each of the high cost (in terms of lives, dollars, quality of life) issues listed below is multi-determined and that there aren’t easy answers, but so is the unfolding of this global pandemic. Even though we aren’t exactly meeting the covid-19 challenge in the most efficient or wisest of ways (here’s looking at you), most of us are on board with trying. The things that come to mind that are ripe for collective action and strengthened public policies are U.S. fatalities related to:

  • Automobile accidents (38,000 per year in 2019 (National Safety Council); down from 54,862 in 1968 (CDC))
  • Alcohol (72,558 in 2017 up from 35,914 in 1999; NIAAA)
  • Gun violence (39,773 in 2017, which is a 16% increase over 2014; Giffords Law Center)
  • Air pollution (200,000 per year per JAMA though estimates go as low as 30,000)
  • Obesity (approximately 300,000 per year according to NIMH)

While individual choices and behaviors are clearly implicated in all of these causes of early mortality (except for air pollution), there are powerful money interests working to influence behavior and to limit the inclusion of safeguards that could prevent much of this loss of life. You would think with mortality rates like these that we’d be going all out to change the conditions that are costing so many people their lives (or rather, that we would have dealt with them long ago). However, we’ve been largely stuck, ensnared by greedy profiteers who thrive on our deaths. Maybe, though, now that we’ve shown ourselves we can mobilize, or rather immobilize, for the common good, we can take the lessons learned and apply them to these other threats. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

And then there’s global warming…. It may be super naïve, but what so many of us are doing in response to covid-19 actually gives me hope that we can pull our heads out and start making the changes we need to make to address global warming. Wouldn’t that be an amazing silver lining and gift to the future?

May we be safe.
May we be willing to set aside profit and prioritize well-being.
May our public policies support our health.
May we make peace with curtailing limitless personal choice in support of the common good.

Tracy Simpson

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