Public Health Isn't the Enemy of Economic Well-BeingRoundup
tags: public health, urban history, epidemics
Melanie A. Kiechle is an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, and the author of Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America (University of Washington Press, 2017).
Many on the right have concluded the economic damage done by social distancing — which has essentially shut down large swaths of the American economy — is not worth it. They are agitating, with some success in such places as Georgia and South Carolina, to reopen the economy regardless of the health risks of spreading the coronavirus and the potential loss of life. President Trump, too, has signaled he hears them, though he said Wednesday that he strongly disagreed with the decision of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) to end certain restrictions.
But this dichotomy — that we must choose economy or health — is a false one, as many economists have argued. In the 19th century, reformers broke the false dichotomy between health and the economy by arguing that “health is wealth.” While this has become a pithy slogan in modern times, it had a far more significant meaning in its earliest days. We need to resurrect this understanding and use it to convince government officials that regularly and consistently investing in public health bolsters human and economic well-being. Ignoring public health considerations, by contrast, is a recipe for driving the economy down.
Setting up a false binary between health and economy has a long history of influencing political decisions in the United States. When businessmen doubled as political leaders, as was the case in many 19th-century cities (and again today), they made decisions to advance their own interests. This often meant refusing health investigations that might harm their real estate values and rejecting sanitary provisions for which they would have to pay directly, such as landlords improving housing conditions.
Political leaders were reluctant to enact measures that might interfere with the local economy in the short term. Quarantines, the most common method of disease prevention, for example, stopped the flow of goods and people into port cities — thereby halting trade and slowing the marketplace. Even when an epidemic was imminent, city governments accordingly were slow to enforce quarantine measures and drew ire because quarantines disrupted local businesses and jobs.
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