Public Health Expert Leana Wen on Lessons from COVID-19

Alonzo Osche

Q: Why do you think public health is so undervalued in this country?

A: Public health works because it’s invisible. It’s very hard to explain the value of something that you can’t see. If you prevent children from getting lead poisoning, there’s no face of someone with lead poisoning because you’ve prevented it from happening. As a result, public health becomes the first item on the chopping block. COVID-19 is a stark example of what happens when there’s chronic neglect of — and underinvestment in — public health.

Q: What do you consider the big lessons we’ve learned from COVID?

A: One is the importance of a national plan. When you don’t have a coherent 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 you have scientists and medical officials being actively undermined by politicians, you end up having something as basic as masks or vaccinations being politicized instead of being understood as public health imperatives. And the third thing is the underlying disparities in our health care system that COVID unveiled. The virus didn’t create those disparities. They were always there, but the pandemic exposed them.

Q: What kind of disparities are you talking about?

A: We’ve seen that people who are disproportionately affected by COVID are African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans and people of low income. Why? Look at Baltimore, for example. One in 3 African American residents there live in a food desert, compared with only 1 in every 12 white residents. Is it any surprise that African Americans have higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease — conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID?

Q: What advice do you have for people 50 and older regarding the pandemic?

A: We need to stop focusing on one question: “Is x activity safe?” I think people should ask themselves another question: “What is the most important thing to me?” That’s dependent on the risk of the individual activity but also — very importantly — on your own values.

Q: What is your biggest concern about COVID?

A: That we’re not going to get enough people vaccinated to reach herd immunity. We were waiting for science to rescue us and we weren’t willing to do the hard things like masking and avoiding indoor gatherings. Now people are getting in their own way again by not getting the vaccine. I’m very concerned that we’ll have the opportunity to end the pandemic, but we don’t do it.

Q: What gives you hope?

A: Seeing the many millions of people who have made profound sacrifices for others. That gives me a lot of hope. There has been the sense over this last year that we are all in this together. I think we should take a lot of comfort in that.

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