Public health expert Leana Wen on lessons from COVID-19
Q: Why do you think public health is so undervalued in this country?
A: Public health works because it is invisible. It is very difficult to explain the value of something that you cannot see. If you prevent children from getting lead poisoning, there is no face of someone suffering from it because you prevented it. As a result, public health becomes the first element on the chopping block. COVID-19 is a vivid example of what happens when there is chronic neglect – and underinvestment in – public health.
Q: What do you see as the big lessons we’ve learned from COVID?
A: One is the importance of a national plan. When you don’t have a cohesive plan, you end up with a lot of piecemeal approaches that just don’t work. The second lesson is how much public health depends on public trust. When scientists and medical officials are actively undermined by politicians, you end up having something as basic as masks or vaccinations that are politicized instead of understood as public health imperatives. And the third thing is the underlying disparities in our healthcare system that COVID has exposed. The virus did not create these disparities. They’ve always been there, but the pandemic has exposed them.
Q: What kind of disparities are you talking about?
A: We have seen that the people disproportionately affected by COVID are African Americans, Latin Americans, Native Americans, and people with low incomes. Why? Look at Baltimore, for example. One in three African American residents live there in a food desert, compared to just 1 in 12 White residents. Is it any surprise that African Americans have higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease – all conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID?
Q: What advice do you give people 50 and over regarding the pandemic?
A: We need to stop focusing on one question: “Is activity x safe?” “I think people should ask themselves another question:” What is the most important thing for me? It depends on the risk of the individual activity but also – very important – on your own values.
Q: What is your biggest concern about COVID?
A: That we are not going to vaccinate enough people to achieve collective immunity. We were waiting for science to save us and we weren’t ready to do the hard things like hide and avoid gatherings inside. Now people are getting on their way again by not getting the vaccine. I am very concerned that we have the opportunity to end the pandemic, but we are not.
Q: What gives you hope?
A: See the millions of people who have made deep sacrifices for others. It gives me a lot of hope. There has been a feeling over the last year that we are all in the same boat. I think we should be very reassured about that.