Features, Science

Experts in public health reflect on the pandemic and what our ‘next normal’ should be

Boston University’s School of Public Health held a webinar on Monday to reflect on the pandemic and discuss the potential post-pandemic world. The webinar had three professors from different universities around the world and one other panelist from the World Health Organization.

School of Public Health
The Boston University School of Public Health. The School held a webinar Monday as part of their “Next Normal” series to discuss the potential post-pandemic world and its implications for global health cooperation. MAYA CHADDA/ DFP FILE

Sandro Galea, the dean of SPH, said at the event that a new theme — “Public Health. Now is the Time” — was chosen for the year to “elevate an area where community expertise intersects with the priorities of public health.”

Each month, the theme is highlighted through a “Next Normal” series event. Monday’s event, “The Next Normal: Global Health,” was the first part of a series that covers how topics such as education, food, civil liberties, politics, mental health, hospitals and children’s health relate to COVID-19 and public health.

“The pandemic tested public health like nothing before in recent memory,” Galea said. “The task now facing our global health efforts is to reimagine our world, in light of the lessons we have learned to shape a healthier future.”

The moderator of the webinar was BU professor of biomedical engineering, Muhummad Zaman. At the beginning of the event, he welcomed the diverse range of panelists from different disciplines in the field and different nationalities — something he said was especially important for discussions around this pandemic.

“We need to have multiple voices,” Zaman said in an interview. “It’s not just epidemiologists and clinicians, but it’s also policymakers and public health practitioners who need to think about these questions, and do so in a way that allows for constructive debate and dialogue that promotes good health and well being but also ensures that the future is inclusive, and it’s equitable for all.”

After introductions, each panelist had eight to 10 minutes to discuss lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and what the next normal could look like.

Olakunle Alonge, assistant professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said one of the best ways to handle global health issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic is “multilateral cooperation and collaboration.”

“When people come together at a global, national and sub-national levels, and we actually work with the principle of cooperating to find solutions to common problems, this is the most important strategy,” Alonge said.

COVID-19 has shown us “the resilience of the human spirit” and global cooperation, Alonge said. But, he said the current system of global health needs a “remodel.”

“The solution of yesterday cannot carry us forward into the future,” Alonge said.

Phuoc Le, associate professor at the University of California San Francisco, said he “can guarantee” that we need to act faster for future pandemics, which will require more investments in health systems, he said.

“These systems have to be strong enough to respond in a way that is extremely timely,” Le said. “We definitely saw that speed is of the utmost importance during this pandemic and nature of this pandemic.”

Helena Legido-Quigley, associate professor at Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, said she has been working in Europe and Asia throughout the pandemic. This, she said, has shown her how different each country’s strategies of dealing with the pandemic are.

Through her research, she found that “despite the warnings, the world was not prepared.” She said ignoring those warning signs, which the world did during the SARS and Ebola health crises, should be avoided in the future.

“We need to listen to the recommendations and implement them,” Legido-Quigley said.

Equalizing global health is also something she said needs to be a priority for the future.

“We will have to be very upfront on some of the injustices that have been happening in global health,” Legido-Quigley said in an interview. “We have done all of these assessments of what went wrong in previous pandemics, and the recommendations were never followed.”

The final panelist, María Neira, director of the Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health at the World Health Organization, said that to get to the next normal, “structural failures” need to be repaired.

“By repairing this relationship with our ecosystems and biodiversity, we will be able to reduce our vulnerability,” she said. “We need to make sure that this financial support is going in the right direction and not making the same mistakes that we have been making until now.”

One of the most common recommendations over the pandemic was to wash your hands, she said, but many places around the world don’t have access to the supplies to do that.

“If you invest in access to safe water and sanitation and hygiene, you are making a very good investment to prevent many diseases and to create a healthier society,” Neira said.

Following their opening remarks, the panelists then had time to answer questions from the audience. One question asked was, “how do we ensure that our strategies are truly inclusive?”

Neira said that we need to push for “universal health coverage [and] equity on the vaccine distribution.”

Legido-Quigley pointed out that many countries that have universal health coverage exclude refugees and migrants. This needs to be reversed, she said.

Using an “asset-based framework” by using local leaders and local communities is one way to “ensure bottom-up and top-down approaches to the next pandemic,” Le said.

Other topics asked and discussed were how to deal with misinformation, renewable energy in healthcare systems, socioeconomic disparity and vaccine distribution.

“It’s important for us not to forget that it’s COVID today, it could be another thing tomorrow,” Alonge said. “As long as those underlying causes are not addressed, we’re actually just moving money, we’re just changing faces but we’re not solving the problem.”

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