Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Covid-19’s big public health lesson: Ask people to be careful, not perfect

By German Lopez, Vox

For too long, America has approached public health issues with puritanical, black-and-white approaches. Whether it’s an abstinence-only approach for teen sex and HIV/AIDS, or refusing to provide clean needles and overdose antidotes to people who use drugs, the country has a tendency to prefer the perfect but unrealistic over the better and pragmatic. The US repeated those mistakes again with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Much of the discussion about the coronavirus and how to mitigate it has been framed in absolutist terms. The initial phase of the pandemic was marked by harsh lockdowns, including relatively safe spaces like parks and beaches. People created Instagram accounts to shame those who didn’t perfectly follow the precautions. Schools have remained closed partly because parents and teachers are worried about any risk of Covid-19, suggesting that any risk whatsoever is too much.

But over the course of the pandemic, an alternative has started to take hold: harm reduction. The approach, initially popularized by activists working on drug use and HIV/AIDS, focuses on minimizing risk, even under less-than-ideal circumstances, such as telling people to have safe sex rather than abstain entirely, or be monogamous to avoid HIV. In theory, it’s not the best approach for preventing HIV, but it’s better, while letting people live their lives closer to what they want.


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