COVID-19 has forced us to face the fact that in mere days or hours we can go from autonomous, free-acting agents to having strangers become the guardians of our bodies and selves. These strangers may be called upon to judge the value of our lives against those of others as they triage scarce resources or to predict our quality of life against the potential risks and rewards of treatments. The sudden annihilating onset of the disease denies many the chance to choose for themselves how they want to spend their final hours and with whom. It separates patients from loved ones, depriving both sides of mutual comfort, reassurance, and the easing of fears and suffering.
With the COVID-19 epidemic spreading across the globe, people everywhere are getting a crash course in public health. Terms like “flattening the curve” and “herd immunity” are daily being added to our vocabularies. Since its beginnings during a cholera epidemic in the 1850s in London, the field of public health has evolved dramatically, yet some of the advances that are particularly germane to COVID-19 are not getting much attention. That includes public health’s focus on social justice.