Over the last few weeks, South Carolina has begun to open back up. For many South Carolinians, this is exciting news. Local economies are being stimulated again. People can go back to work. Small businesses can provide all of the things we’ve been missing, like a nice haircut or a really good workout.
For others, these announcements caused further anxiety that COVID-19 rates would spike in the state, especially because we’re still waiting for a vaccine and testing is not yet universal. With the death toll over 100,000 nationally, people are fearful about a second wave of infection. Recent estimates from South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control also show that we have not yet reached a steady downward trend, although there are several factors around testing to consider.
The public conversation around COVID-19 is no longer a true conversation. It’s more of a heated argument with no end in sight. Like the current state of the political system, you feel like you are forced to choose a side: Either you are pro-economy or pro-public health.
As a public health professional, many friends and colleagues have asked for my perspective about the rapid reopening of South Carolina. My response is that I’m pro-economy and pro-public health. You can be both. Here’s how:
To be pro-public health is to believe that the sacrifices we all made during the stay-at-home order was worth it.
There are three levels of prevention in public health. The first is called primary prevention, in which we seek to keep a health issue from occurring in the first place. An example of primary prevention is stay-at-home orders. Many experts have been crediting these primary prevention efforts as significantly reducing the overall number of cases. Primary prevention is ideal, but it is also hard to measure. If we know it is working, we may think we overreacted. We didn’t. We did the right thing by making a science-based decision.
We’re now moving into secondary prevention, or harm reduction, while continuing to treat (tertiary prevention) for those who have been exposed. This means that based on what we know about COVID-19, we are willing to balance the risks associated with reopening with the need for businesses to thrive.
To be pro-economy is to recognize that a healthy economy is only as healthy as the people working in it.
This means that we should take every precaution possible, including wearing masks in public spaces, respecting the social distancing guidelines in place at restaurants and other attractions, and most importantly, recognizing that our ability to make choices about where we will go, whether it’s to the salon or gym, is a privilege. Many of our fellow South Carolinians don’t have that same choice. We should be smart about these choices and recognize that they have an impact on others, just like our decisions to not drink and drive or to expose others to secondhand smoke.
Finally, to be pro-public health and pro-economy, we have to realize that while we may be in the same storm, we aren’t all in the same boat.
Research is showing that the pandemic is exacerbating already existing inequities in our everyday lives.
Neighborhoods that have historically been deprived of thriving schools and businesses are also the ones that are most likely to be considered “hot spots” and have higher rates of people dying from the virus. Essential workers are more likely to earn hourly wages without adequate protections against the virus or the support to ensure their kids have child care or appropriate schooling while they are away. Access to proper health care, including accessible and affordable options, is still often dependent on where you live and where you work.
Ultimately, we all suffer the consequences of these inequities. COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to redesign the way our society operates. While ensuring our businesses are flourishing, we should be adamant that new policies and practices being instituted across the state address these health and social inequities.
At the end of the day, we all want the same thing. We crave a return to some kind of normalcy and familiarity in our daily lives. We are social creatures who want physical touch and connection. We want our state to be strong and resilient. We must remember this as we navigate uncharted waters during the pandemic.
There will be some new routes along the way, but we must be patient and hold hope that our actions and our shared commitment to the greater good of South Carolina will make the real difference.
Aditi Srivastav Bussells lives in Columbia and received her doctorate in public health from the University of South Carolina. Her research expertise is in health disparities, childhood resilience and health policy.