Complexities of public health presented at CRU event

The predicted snow storm on March 1 held off long enough for the Center for Religious Understanding (CRU) to put on their event with speaker Abdul El-Sayed.

El-Sayed is the executive director of public health and health officer for the City of Detroit.

It was held from 12-1 p.m. in the Gold Rooms and was open to all OU students, faculty, staff and the public.

Presenting in a relatable yet eloquent way, he tackled the difficult topic of ethical challenges in public health, connecting them to Detroit.

As the concept of public health is often misunderstood, he began with the definition.

“Public health is what we, as a society, do collectively to ensure the conditions for people to be healthy.”

This means that it’s about health promotion as opposed to curing disease.

Public health endeavors include the Click It or Ticket policy, smoking bans and bicycle helmet laws.

An important idea brought up was paternalism, which is when the attitudes and actions of people or an organization protect others, but don’t give any freedom in the matter.

Central to the discussion was whether people should force others to live in a safer way, or respect their right to make their own decisions even if it means putting themselves and others at risk.

Regarding Detroit, a lot of what effects people in the city is determined by people outside of it. Residents are on the receiving end without being able to control what happens to them.

One concern is obesity. To help, there could be a public health initiative for a 20 percent increase in soda tax. While this may be beneficial for the obese, it could put employees out of a job as Detroit is home to Faygo, Vernors and Pepsi manufacturers. 

There is also the issue of infant mortality. It could be lowered with the Tobacco 21 policy that would make the smoking age 21, which might limit the nicotine ingestion of young moms. El-Sayed asked if this paternalism is justified, as we would allow people to go to war but not smoke.

Alan Epstein, director of CRU, agrees with the intricacy of public health.

“It’s a multidimensional thing, not just about losing weight or being safe. It also involves questions of power. A lot is determined by who can make key decisions,” he said.

Epstein felt El-Sayed did a great job in the daunting task of addressing these serious problems. 

“At the same time he really left a positive impression about the prospects,” Epstein said. “And his own story and dedication to the matter was very inspiring.”  

Overall, he hopes that after this event people have a better understanding of what public health is and know that it affects us all.

This was the first CRU event Mary Joseph, a senior in social work, has attended.

She is very interested in Detroit and its incredible disparities in health and the access to it.

“From a social work perspective, the injustices of the world affect OU just as drastically as Detroit, even if they’re not as noticeable. It’s so important for students to pursue knowledge in that area,” she said.

Epstein connected this discussion back to CRU.

“Events like this show the ways in which ethics and reality transcend religion,” he said. “I think above all, even if we have different religions and worship in different places, ultimately we are a part of the same human family.”

CRU was created in fall 2015. It promotes religious literacy and understanding of identity on campus, as well as serves as a forum for public issues.

So far it has organized 10 events, starting off the year with the World Religion Showcase. Representatives of different religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, gave presentations and conducted discussions.

If interested in getting involved, CRU just started a religion studies club. Check out the CRU website or Facebook page for more information.