Our Public Health Responsibility as Christians

A Prophetic Pandemic?

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For the past five years I worked in public health. When I began, I didn’t know much about public health. The more I learned, however, the more I connected to the work, because so many of the ideas and messages of public health are connected to the values and work Christians are called to live out every day.

So as the world has been collectively affected by Covid-19, it has been quite amazing to watch as the world has become more aware of and gotten on board with public health messages that I’ve been living and breathing the past few years.

Public health is a niche area in the health care industry that focuses on the overall health of the general public. While so much of health care is focused on individual patients and their health concerns, public health looks at the population as a whole and tries to proactively improve everyone’s health and wellbeing. It also responds to large health crises that impact large groups, and it usually requires assistance from the general public.

Covid-19 has put this into practical terms for us today. People everywhere are being asked to think of their communities above themselves and stay home and limit contact with others. It’s uncomfortable and not always pleasant. It means giving up what we want in service to others. And it is an opportunity for us as Christians to live out the second commandment Jesus gave us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 12:31).

Similar to when public health advocates for vaccines, the current message of practicing physical distancing is about asking people to do something that will help not only themselves but others as well. Especially those who are most vulnerable.

Vulnerable populations are a key demographic for public health work. A lot of data analysis goes into identifying the biggest local health issues and those who are affected. Public health professionals then use that data to develop programs and services that will make the biggest impact.

This work is a modern-day response to Matt. 25:37-40:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you as a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

I’ve seen public health initiatives work to provide fresh and healthy food, create spaces for people to come together for much-needed socialization, and participate in clothing drives. I’ve seen public health professionals work tirelessly to protect their communities and advocate for their clients.

This work isn’t always about ensuring everyone is treated equally, instead is more about equity—ensuring everyone has equal access even though they start off in different places.

There is a great illustration used in public health to explain the difference between equality and equity. For equality, three people of various heights standing at a fence trying to see over it to the baseball game on the other side. Each person is standing on a box, even though the first person didn’t need a box to be able to see over the fence, and the third, much shorter person, still can’t see the game. So, while they all have been equally given assistance, it doesn’t get them the same outcome. For equity, the first person’s box is given to the third person, thereby allowing all three to see over the fence.

God too practices equity. He doesn’t just offer up an equal amount of grace and mercy to everyone. No, he gives us each as much as we need.
“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7).

He doesn’t set a limit to when we have sinned too much—there is no limit to God’s love and forgiveness. And it’s an example we are called to follow: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Public health can be a beautiful act of service. Of being God’s hands and feet here on earth. Together we serve the greater good, giving of ourselves for those among us who need help the most.

My hope is that after Covid-19 is over, we will not forget this opportunity we had to live out our collective responsibility to protect and look after others. Hopefully we will carry on being advocates for equity, we will think of others' needs above our own, and we will continue caring for the most vulnerable among us.

About the Author

Courtney Westerhof is a writer and communications professional. She is a Canadian expat currently living in London, England. She is a member of Ancaster Christian Reformed Church. Follow her on Twitter @cmwesterhof.

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