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Jesse Smith

Jesse Smith

Fulbright Alum in Public Health

Public health researcher and bioengineer with an interest in the effects of data use on society. I write about complex systems and drink coffee in my free time.

  • I like to use an analogy to help people grasp population health. Public health treats society is a bit like medicine treats the human body. Institutions are a bit like organs; people are a bit like cells. Cells are living systems in their own right- they’re the smallest of such systems, just as humans

    I like to use an analogy to help people grasp population health. Public health treats society is a bit like medicine treats the human body. Institutions are a bit like organs; people are a bit like cells. Cells are living systems in their own right- they’re the smallest of such systems, just as humans are the smallest component of society. Ideally, we want every cell to flourish- healthy, down to the last drop. But your health, the overall system’s health, is more than the sum of your cells. Cells are actually pre-programmed to die before they can become unhealthy contributors- a process called apoptosis.

    Obviously, this does not imply we should scale apoptosis to the human level. Unlike doctors, our ultimate aim and moral imperative is the health of the individual parts- the health of the whole is a secondary objective. Like doctors, though, we have to consider the health of each “level” in deciding how to help. And, like doctors, we understand that the parts cannot survive long without a healthy whole.

    I would contend, then, that the moral dilemma between individualism and collectivism is a false dichotomy borne of incomplete information and short-sightedness. To use an extreme example, cancer is just your own cells with their pre-programmed altruism switched off. In the short term, this works great for them. They aren’t even “causing” harm. They simply soak up resources so quickly that other cells can’t compete. They “allow” harm.

    Even cancer, though, brings about its own demise by causing the demise of its “society of cells”- the person. Likewise, individuals cannot long act in self-interest at the expense of collective good without harm, allowed or caused, coming full circle.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has and will continue to have the greatest effect on the poorest and most vulnerable. Humanitarian programs have a responsibility to their workers; they can’t simply keep them in place. At the same time, the standards of health equity demand that we not forget about less fortunate

    The COVID-19 pandemic has and will continue to have the greatest effect on the poorest and most vulnerable. Humanitarian programs have a responsibility to their workers; they can’t simply keep them in place. At the same time, the standards of health equity demand that we not forget about less fortunate neighbors as we fight this pandemic at home.

    If we refuse, the “worst case scenarios” of the wealthy- if you’re reading this, that’s probably you- will be the norm for the poorest 50%. Social distancing isn’t feasible in an urban slum. Neither is treatment, for most of the 20% or more who will need critical care. That leads to staggering loss of life.

    This circles back around to the home front. A pandemics is tricky; even if we control it at home, all it takes is one tourist to repeat the whole scenario. COVID-19 will not be beaten at home until it is beaten everywhere. That’s the nature of communicable diseases in a global society without herd immunity.

  • Mobility is down across all forms of transportation, though public transport may be the most important. This is borne out in Quartz’s related stories on emissions and traffic accidents.

    More generally for the US, Unacast’s “Social Distancing Scoreboard” (with which I am unaffiliated) shows percentage

    Mobility is down across all forms of transportation, though public transport may be the most important. This is borne out in Quartz’s related stories on emissions and traffic accidents.

    More generally for the US, Unacast’s “Social Distancing Scoreboard” (with which I am unaffiliated) shows percentage change in average distance travelled on a per-county basis for all 50 US states. The national average is a 39.84% decrease as I write this.

    For reference, we need a sustained decrease of 50-70% in the viral reproductive rate (R0) to begin seeing a decrease in new cases. Social distance (or lack thereof) is a key component of R0. We’re getting there, even in places with no shelter in place orders (like my own county, which shows a 40% decrease).

    Neither the measure nor the response is perfect, but we don’t need perfection. We need persistent action.

    That’s exactly what we’re seeing.

  • This is an incredible technology; production of clean energy, CO2 offsets, and increasing urban exposure to green space are all major issues we face.

    From an engineering perspective, I’m inclined to wonder how efficient this could be per unit area compared to wind turbines; it’s also subject to most

    This is an incredible technology; production of clean energy, CO2 offsets, and increasing urban exposure to green space are all major issues we face.

    From an engineering perspective, I’m inclined to wonder how efficient this could be per unit area compared to wind turbines; it’s also subject to most of the consistency problems of wind power (without advances in battery tech- see that Quartz “state of play”). Combined with the potential knock-on effects explored in this article, a cost-benefit analysis might be less clear-cut than it seems.

    That being said, I’d much rather walk through a field of trees than a field of of turbines. It’s exciting to see potential for such radically different, and healthier, methods of generation.

  • It may well get worse first; in some ways, we’re living through that now (e.g. global wealth, by many measures, is increasingly being consolidated by the 1%).

    It’s worth noting, though, that our standards for equality will probably be different in 50 years. Just as many forms of today’s equality did

    It may well get worse first; in some ways, we’re living through that now (e.g. global wealth, by many measures, is increasingly being consolidated by the 1%).

    It’s worth noting, though, that our standards for equality will probably be different in 50 years. Just as many forms of today’s equality did not exist in popular culture in 1969, we will likely have a greater range of expression when we speak of equality in 2069. However, implementation of these ideas will not be so quick; even if the world becomes more equal by today’s standards, it may well look less equal to the standards of 2069.