Monday, April 3, 2017

Public Health Week 2017 – The Best of Times

In April 1859 the first of 31 weekly installments of Charles Dickens’s "The Tale of Two Cities" was published in a literary periodical titled "All the Year Round." The novel starts with the famous sentence: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period…”

I don’t know if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had that sentence in mind when he gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis 109 years later on April 3, 1968, but his words underscored the theme. With rhetoric that presaged his assassination the following day (which would lead to some of darkest days in United States history) Dr. King clearly stated that these were the best of times. “Something is happening in our world. … if I were standing at the beginning of time… and the Almighty said to me, …’which age would you like to live in?’ I would take my mental flight (through Egypt, Greece, Roman Empire, Renaissance, Wittenberg with Martin Luther, Emancipation Proclamation, etc.)… But I wouldn't stop there. Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’”

He explained that “…the reason I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it ... (and) let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice.”

April 3, 2017, the 49th anniversary of that speech, is also the first day of National Public Health Week. For those of us in public health, this truly is the best of times and the worst of times, the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness, the season of light and the season of darkness, and the spring of hope and the winter of despair. We are living longer than ever before but that progress has already been reversed in some sub-groups. Fewer babies are dying than ever before but we are falling farther behind other countries in this crucial health indicator. Tobacco use is falling while our weight is rising. Our air and water quality is generally improving but regulations are being promoted that threaten the quality of our environment and our health. And while the overall health of our society is quite good, an increasing number of our fellow citizens don’t share in our wellness. In fact, it’s these inequities that portend the worst of times to come. As Dr. King said, “The issue is injustice.”

The theme for Public Health Week is “Telling the Story of Public Health.” Our story of public health is an amazing one. It celebrates successes and it identifies the problems and challenges that exist. It honors the people who help make this world safer and healthier and it keeps us focused on the social justice and equity issues that serve as the foundation for a healthy society. The Story of Public health is based on social justice and health equity brought to life: it is the public manifestation of social justice.

For public health, as Dickens said, these are the best of times and the worst of times. As Dr. King said, there is no better time to be alive because we have the opportunity to grapple with problems that have plagued society throughout history. And, as Senator Robert La Follette, Sr, one of my public health heroes reminded us, “There never was a higher call to greater service than this protracted fight for social justice.”

Thank you to all the public health workers who grapple to make these the best of times, even at the worst of times.