Good fences

Hand washing used to be controversial.

Before Ignaz Semmelweis did his groundbreaking work in proving that disease spread when doctors didn’t wash before and after treating patients, hygiene was ignored. In fact, it took decades for the system to change.

Today, of course, it’s understood that doctors, food service workers and everyone else ought to wash their hands to protect those around us. Doctors don’t wash their hands because they enjoy it, they do it because that’s what doctors do.

Disease evolves.

As it spreads from one person to another, a disease reproduces and has a chance to mutate. And those mutations create new problems, problems that we may be ill-equipped to deal with.

And disease is frightening. When it collides with culture, culture often demands we stand still. We stick with what we know, with what feels safe, with the status quo. Because to do otherwise means that we have to acknowledge that perhaps one day, the disease will win.

It’s easier to sell a new fashion or a sports team than it is to sell public health. Like most of the human challenges we face, it’s a marketing problem, a chance to use words and affiliation and possibility to create change.

There’s a long history of culture pushing back on the smart, generous, safe interventions that ultimately become standard. Because the status quo is the status quo precisely because it’s good at sticking around.

When we have a chance to make things better for the people we care about, we usually realize that this is exactly the thing we hope to do. But first, we need to see what our choices are based on and where they lead.