There’s no easy way to put it. The impacts of COVID-19 have been devastating. From losses of life, to job losses, to losses in our overall quality of life. This pandemic has hit us all hard, each in different ways.
COVID-19 has brought such disruption that our lives most likely won’t go back to normal. Some are predicting long-term changes to the airline industry due to reduced business travel and more flexible remote work options. Similarly, digital transformations such as online learning, e-commerce and telemedicine may continue to be on the upswing even after COVID-19.
Yet as the impacts of the pandemic continue to unfold, this unprecedented time has also provided us with an opportunity for reflection. Being locked up at home has forced many of us to re-evaluate our priorities; to let go of what isn’t important and to intentionally bring more things into our lives that are.
Moving forward, as global health professionals, one of those critical points for reflection is examining how we can harness the attention that COVID-19 suddenly brought to this industry. Specifically, how can we channel more resources into this field.
During my Masters of Public Health degree, I never would have guessed that, in just a few short years, almost everyone in the world would be discussing epidemiological data and public health interventions over dinner tables.
Before 2020, public health work wasn’t, well, very ‘cool.’ The exciting work? That’s reserved for medicine. Like surgeons. ER docs. Paramedics. But public health practitioners? I mean… what do they do again?
This lack of understanding isn’t something that we can blame anyone for. People who aren’t trained in public health — or haven’t lived through a pandemic (which is all of us!) — wouldn’t necessarily have recognized how important public health work is.
But times have changed.
The deadly consequences of COVID19 have forced all of us, in very tragic ways, to quickly realize how essential it is to have strong health systems. COVID19 can bring greater, long-term attention and funding into global public health, but only if we prioritize it.
COVID19 has revealed just how unprepared many countries are with handling public health threats such as pandemics. For instance, we have a critical resource shortage in health research and development (just one example: there is a $100 million annual shortfall in malaria research alone).
COVID19 has further revealed a severe shortage in personal protective equipment (PPE), along with other public health supplies such as ventilators, rapid diagnostic tests, and a backup supply of vials to distribute vaccines.
What’s more, by 2030, the World Health Organization projects we will face an 18 million health worker shortage.
This needs to change.
We need more funding being channeled into global public health interventions.
Yet when it comes to addressing this issue, it’s easy to assume that because COVID19 has affected everyone in the world, that this will inevitably become a priority. After all, the need for public health infrastructure is now somewhat obvious and self-explanatory.
However, we cannot overlook politics or the short-sightedness that we as humans innately have. We therefore need to prioritize this shift by systematically putting in concerted time and energy into advocating for global public health work.
As people who are privileged to be educated in public health, one key component in this fight will be us, public health practitioners. The burden of this advocacy of course can’t solely fall on our shoulders, but we do have an important role to play.
Within this, public health practitioners need to start asking: How can we not lose the attention and funding that COVID19 suddenly brought to global public health work?
There are many ways we can do this.
For instance, we can engage and talk with our friends, family members and colleagues about the current shortfalls in global health funding. Experts can share their knowledge and recent public health findings via media interviews and social media posts. Others can opt in to contributing opinion pieces so that more people can access knowledge of the gaps in our health systems and what needs to change.
We can’t be complacent about this. A major disease outbreak happens every few years. For instance, before COVID19, SARS emerged in 2002, then we had H1N1/swine flu in 2009, and Ebola in 2014. Yes, all of those outbreaks happened in the short timespan of 12 years.
And before that? There was HIV, smallpox, measles… the list goes on. Not to mention other public health issues that are overloading our health systems, like chronic heart diseases, an aging population, mental health challenges, and socioeconomic disparities.
It may sound intimidating, but it’s a reality that we need to face. And public health practitioners are equipped with essential knowledge to help ensure that we can become better prepared for the future.
COVID19 hasn’t yet been defeated. And neither have misconceptions surrounding public health, and how it’s an ‘uncool field’ that doesn’t require much attention or investment.
Like any challenge, COVID19 is presenting us with an opportunity. We can use this time to pull greater attention and resources into global public health. And public health practitioners have an exciting and key role to play in bringing that change to life.