California and a few other states have decided to limit mask requirements for people working in an office, shopping in the mall, and going inside other public places. Unfortunately, California's approach has pitted some parents against public schools. The onslaught of parental complaints, harassment, bitterness, and in some cases, threats, have placed public school employees' lives in jeopardy. At the root of the problem is the underlying question: how does government protect "public health" vs. "the public's health?"
Government typically recognizes the need to protect everyone's public health when citizens fail to protect themselves and their families or respect the overall health and safety of society. Even when uncertainty prevails, public health officials are responsible for protecting citizens. That's when the government takes steps to protect the public "for the greater good."
That's why, when the pandemic struck, the federal government took the initiative to ensure the public's health would be protected by working with the pharmaceutical industry to create vaccines. Recognizing that every citizen's health was in peril, vaccines were developed and made available to protect the public.
More than 900,000 Americans have died during this pandemic. Many refused public health advice to get vaccinated against Covid and Covid-variants. Others died because they were exposed and at higher risk of getting fatally ill from Covid. Many experienced the death of a family member or a friend's parent or grandparent who was alone in a hospital or nursing home; we could not say goodbye, hold their hand, kiss their forehead, or tell them one last time how much we loved them.
While many disagreed or disregarded decisions concerning the public's health, decisions had to be made. Governments should be leading during a global pandemic, taking responsibility to protect and prioritize the public over the individual. Leadership is built on a foundation of trust and credibility; convincing those you lead, through communication that is believable and consistent, that decisions are made based on the best information available at the time
While the pandemic may slow to a crawl, it is forever woven into the fabric of our lives. There is no greater need or greater time for elected officials to be forthright. Government leaders must talk about how and why they decide to allow people to unmask in public spaces yet require children in public schools to wear masks. What is the logic of making public school children wear masks indoors when they can throw them off while on the playground hugging and kissing their friends or sneezing and coughing while they run around and burn off some energy? Maybe it makes sense. If so, have the courage to explain it, so public school officials are not verbally punished by frustrated parents!
As we make our way out of isolation and this pandemic becomes an endemic, we must move thoughtfully and carefully towards our collective new normal. While we are all learning as we go, citizens have a right to demand that elected officials explain why some can unmask and others cannot. What is driving their decisions? Politics? Public wellbeing? Priorities?
— Jeffrey Lewis is the President and CEO of Legacy Health Endowment. The views expressed are his own.