A global pandemic has proved that understanding global health is paramount if we would like to preserve the existence of humanity. To many, the pandemic seems like it is over, with mandatory mask requirements dropped in public places and children as young as six months old now able to get vaccinated. But in reality, the two-and-a-half-year-old virus is still making its rounds, and people are still getting sick and being hospitalized. COVID-19 isn’t over, but instead has joined the dozens of other public health crises we have faced for years, some with solutions, others almost unavoidable.
Public health is an umbrella term that covers a plethora of health-related issues, primarily those connected to disease prevention and everyday health. We often cite this term when discussing issues such as the global spread of infectious disease, the clean water crisis and healthcare disparities, both in the United States and abroad. Typically, the conversation surrounding public health only covers the issues that directly relate to our bodies and physical health. More recently, though, its definition has come to encompass matters of health that are less biological and focus more on modern social issues. Public health isn’t all about vaccines and sickness anymore — it’s about everything.
The American Public Health Association, the APHA, acknowledges the range of public health issues that we are currently battling, including substance abuse, public planning and overall mental health. Each of these fields is not commonly associated with issues related to bodily well-being, but they are nonetheless important and still fit alongside the subject of public health. The foundation of this term is that it is “public” — it has to do with communities and the matters that impact them the most. The public health crises of this day and age are much more urgent, divisive and impactful en masse than we’ve ever seen before, and they fit a seemingly new definition of the term we’ve heard in previous conversations.
The three largest and “new-age” public health crises that we face today, specifically in the United States, are gun violence, racism and climate change. Though not what we consider to be issues traditionally related to health, they tend to act just like infections: they spread where they are not welcome, and they are hard to eliminate. We are constantly surrounded by disease, but not ones that can be cured with medical diagnoses and immunizations. These diseases impact all of us and can only truly be solved with a concoction of collective action and policies.
In 2020, the leading cause of death for children was no longer car-related incidents; it was gun-related injuries. Gun violence is not only a political issue but a public health crisis. Guns are the cause behind thousands of deaths each year, and, just like infections, they deny once healthy individuals of their livelihoods. From incidents of domestic violence to homicide by firearm, gun violence threatens the health and well-being of each of us — it is not only a crisis of violence but of various external factors. It is multi-faceted, impacting and impacted by socioeconomic status, race, health and politics. In approaching the epidemic of gun violence as a public health crisis, we may be better equipped to examine all of its related causes and effects, and in turn, we can provide both physical and emotional safety for all.
Another multi-faceted issue that has plagued the nation throughout history is that of racism. Multiple cities and states, including Michigan, have declared racism a public health crisis, specifically within the realms of the criminal justice system, health justice and socioeconomic justice. Naming racism as a public health crisis, or “emergency,” acknowledges it as a problem that debilitates the livelihood of people of Color, depriving certain individuals of care and citizenship because of their race. Institutionalized racism is present in multiple social, political and economic circumstances. Public health is not just connected to our general physical health but also to our education status and socioeconomic background — it is a crisis that requires action, especially when it comes to racial injustice.
A crisis that has no known limitations, climate change is undeniably the most formidable challenge facing humanity today. Addressing global warming and the various impacts of climate change on the planet as a public health crisis is crucial — the health effects of its continued existence are a threat to all of us, whether we notice them or not. From our physical health to our mental health, rising temperatures and increased rates of natural disasters pose a threat to both social structures and our bodies. Due to lack of political action in recent years, climate change’s wrath is likely irreversible, and declaring it a public health crisis is a last attempt by climate scientists to get politicians and the general public to take the problem seriously.
The recognition of seemingly social and political issues as public health crises is necessary if healing solutions are to be acted upon. Even if a problem doesn’t seem to be “health-related” on the surface, it most likely is. Visible or invisible, almost every crisis that plagues us has an impact on our physical, mental and social health. Acknowledging these crises as ones related to public health is important when it comes to setting action into motion, a mindset that has been successful during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although unable to be solved with mask mandates and vaccine requirements, the crises of gun violence, racism and climate change must be approached as public health emergencies. Each of them directly impacts the integrity of public health, even though they may not fall into the common definition. Public health is community-oriented, and addressing these three issues as such is critical to our collective health and development.
Lindsey Spencer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.