We were surrounded by trees yesterday at Forest Park. Cherry blossoms trees as majestic as can be. Cherry blossoms signal the return of Spring. Like raindrops on a sunny day, they bring awe, and continuity for life’s many mysteries. They also bring joy. The mere sighting of a tree full of cherry blossoms evokes feelings of silence. Not because words fail me, but because they won’t do. The beauty of a cherry blossom tree is endless so silence is not needless. To see these trees blossom at once is to know the hidden message of trees. Life can be full of joy, full of silence, full of ease, if only we appease our deeper desire for continuity. For as sure as there will be another Spring weather, season after season, there will be cherry blossom trees too, season after season. This certainty, continuity as a certain thing, is why we should keep cherry blossoms in mind. For if we want our research to last, if we want there to be findings, season after season, for as long as the public health issues remain, then we must first begin like cherry blossoms. Keep continuity (i.e sustainability for those of us in implementation science) like cherry blossoms in mind.
The past 2 days, I have been co-organizing one of the most significant workshops on pandemics. There were 12 panelists, 4 anchor speakers, all charged to answer one question: how might we prepare the future for pandemics. We spoke about the need to focus on culture, group identity, health behaviors, equity, information, misinformation and communication and last but not least, sustainability or how to keep the memories of pandemics overtime. Since the pandemic began last year, I knew I was hungry for a space. Not envying the work of frontline workers, I felt like the voices of other equally significant workers were absent.
Of course the medical field sprung right into action and rightfully so. They have been heavily funded over the years, such that preparations were all they know whether with pandemics or even epidemics. Yet even still, I felt that the voices of others were not being heard. Voices that could have had dialogues, or even polylogues around mask wearing for example. Voices that would have taught what washing hands entails, not just for even adults, nit only for children, but for all of us to live through the pandemic. Voices of diverse people, people who identify with other groups in the US, for example, like the Nigerian American associations that are often common. Voices of everyday citizen with clear and understandable language that wasn’t focused on effect sizes or even the difference between effectiveness versus efficacy. Above all, I knew that voices of the storytellers were no where to be found. From February 26-March 26, we recorded the first 1,000 deaths due to Covid in the US. I remember the front of the Washington Post Newspaper with the thumbnail pictures of the dead. I remember being afraid, wondering whether this thing would even reach my home. These memories haunted me, kept me up at night, kept me glued to the TV, to the news of the dead, to the news of the living, especially those defied all odds just to live. It would take an entire year before I would feel like I have found my space with pandemics. Not because I didn’t start and stop, not one or 2 research ideas, many that never came to fruition, but because I didn’t think anyone cared.
The past 2 days have made me realize that the time for the storytellers of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has arrived. Like Achebe shared in the Anthills of the Savannah, there are those who go have been called to lead with the pandemic. We thank them for their leadership. Many more were called to serve. They did so fearlessly, without even regard to their own lives. Then there are those who are called to wait. I am one of them. I have been waiting for the right moment so we take over from the leaders and the servants. Achebe would note that the leaders are important, the servants too. But it is those who wait, that are most crucial as they stories they are bound to tell about this pandemic would be our escort to future pandemic without which we are blind. They past 2 days of meeting helped to make sense of my role. And it’s quite simple, one that I hope you will join me as I keep telling stories from the COVID19 pandemic.
So I close with this quote by James Baldwin, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.’ The forgotten pandemic of 1918, the one with glaring omission of how black families survived or didn’t, the one with shockingly limited accounts of black nurses and the many ways they adapted to save lives of black people, the one out of touch, destitute, wicked, blind to the lived experiences of black people, has etched priorities that I can’t wait to begin. We cannot forget all that has happened during the coronavirus pandemic. So I take it very seriously when another death is added to the toll, when and how schools reopen, how we make sense of the fact that the virus is in the air like one of our presenters Kimberly Prather kept reminding us today. I take it seriously that my own mentor passed away as a result of the pandemic. The past 2 days has etched priorities that underscores the seriousness of this pandemic so we don’t get another amnesia, another forgotten pandemic. I am prepared to do the work necessary and I hope you keep storytellers in mind. Nothing will be changed with future pandemics, if we don’t begin to document the stories from this pandemic.
In the spirit of Black History Month, my family and I have been reading about Anna Julia Cooper, the 4th African American woman to earn a doctorate, something she accomplished in 1924. Anna Julia Cooper was as fearless as she was powerful, as sublime as she was effortless in her discussions not only on the plight of black women in general, but the need for women to attain higher education. The professor in me is always alert to women who paved the way for me to call myself a professor. Women like Anna Julia Cooper, with her profound book ‘ A Voice from the South’ which urged black women to not be mute or voiceless, but happily expectant and ready to add our voice to the experiment and experience we call America. One statement she wrote in the book that made me alert is: ‘Woman, Mother, your responsibility is one that might make angels tremble.’ This statement was eloquent then as it is perfect for me today. I look forward to the future always with zeal, knowing that the many words of Anna Julia Cooper will be my guide. Keep her in mind.
By day, I am a global health researcher. The past year has been surreal. To not be able to travel for work has also been challenging. I expected the pandemic to last this long. I knew vaccines take time to make and even take longer times to distribute. I am in awe that we were able to make the COVID19 vaccines in record time. That the world began to get vaccinated within 10 months of the pandemic is no small feat. It will go down in history as one of science most enduring achievements, if only we ensure that everyone has access to it. If only we disseminate the vaccines equally. Not for rich countries only, but and especially for those extremely limited in resources.
The pandemic is already felt unequally by many. And an unequal access to the vaccines may nullify all scientific achievements made to bring the pandemic to an end. What good is it to vaccinate some people and not others, some places and not others, ‘rich’ countries, and not ‘poor’ ones, even some continents and not others. ‘No economy, however big, will be immune to the effects of the virus until the pandemic is brought to an end everywhere,” said John Denton, secretary general of the International Chamber of Commerce. No place too. Every single corner of this earth literally matters for this pandemic to end. Every single person to. I would like to return back to work. I expect that this may not be the case until 2022. That would be 2 years of no traveling for work. It’s a tough pill to swallow. I am keeping myself busy with other tasks in the meantime. However, I would prefer that we keep spreading the vaccines equally. Not only for rich countries, but for all countries, especially those limited in resources.
I heard on NPR, the other day that countries in Africa may not receive their coronavirus vaccination until 2022. Shortly after the discussion, I saw an image the made me numb. To be limited in resources can be so detrimental, not just for one country, but an entire continent. But here is the kicker, if Africa isn’t vaccinated, then the pandemic remains. It’s not an either, or option and for once, we have to be our brother’s keeper. Every country in the region needs vaccination so that the pandemic dissipates. It will require us all to scream as loud as we can so African countries are not left behind. With the vaccinations, keep Africa in mind.
I gave a talk this week, my first for the year to a small group of Masters in Public Health students. It was on sustainability and why we need more public health interventions that last. I started by asking them to suspend all they know about the topic and go with me on a journey to Sesame Street. Yea, I took them there and let’s just say it was one of the best lectures I have ever given in a while. It came from my soul and helped me articulate for the first time to a public audience what I mean by the how to do it literature on sustainability. Of course the ideas are still evolving and in due time I will share, but if you can, keep Sesame Street in mind. They have a lot to teach on how to make programs last.
When the history of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is written, what will those of us in public health note we accomplished? How would we present the success and failures with proactively maintaining measures such as wearing masks or practicing social distance or even avoiding large crowds?Where did we go wrong with taking care of the public’s health? How did the public not understand that ending the pandemic depended on us, you and me?
These questions trouble me as our nation recorded 184,000 new cases yesterday according to NPR. With more new cases, come deaths and the winter season has not fully begun. At the present time, it remains that all our pleas to practice basic public health measures is wasted. All the valuable advice and even education presented about the virus by key experts are unknown or unheeded and therefore not utilized by the public. The next couple of months is perhaps the most difficult that the public will experience with a pandemic that shows no sign of abating, respects no authority, and inflicts more harm than good. Not to heed the public health’s simple and clear messages, like wear a mask, or practice social distance, is equivalent to stepping backwards or rounding the corner to the beginning of the pandemic. We keep rounding the corner to the start of the pandemic and frankly, I am tired. With more cases, come more deaths? Whom shall we blame? Ourselves?
The public’s health is very fragile now. Do your part to actually end the pandemic by heeding the advice from public health leaders. Let it not be known, that your loved one tested positive or even died. Ignorance to public health, whether a blessing or a curse is real. Whatever your disposition today, know the virus has its own agenda and doesn’t care about yours. The next couple of months are indeed critical and for the public’s health, it will depend on you and me.
In March 1919, as the nation continued to grapple with the 1918 influenza pandemic, Dr. Wilmer Krusen, the Commissioner of Health and Charities of Philadelphia presented a truth to the people of his municipality. Simply put, it stated ‘Spit spreads Death.’ The statement was displayed as a poster on the front of trolley cars and the Commissioner used them to impress on people, ‘the exceedingly important lesson in sanitation and health.’ This striking way of presenting the truth to the public was common during the pandemic of 1918. In 2020, from the beginning of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, has been withheld from the public.
Six months into the pandemic, we are still far from presenting truths to the public and its starts from the leadership in place. If only they started from the beginning with the following: ‘Covid is real. It can affect anyone. It is not a hoax. Anyone can get sick. Test. Quarantine or isolate. Social Distance. Stay six feet away. Wear a mask. Wear a Damn Mask. Wash your hands. Contact Trace.’ Simple truths like this, presented to people, from the beginning, could have averted 209,000 deaths. Simple truths could have prevented 7million infections. Simple truths could have helped my children return to school. Simple truths would enable us go to church on Sundays. Simple truths would have meant we all return back to some form of normalcy, wearing a mask of course. Every infection is a sad one. Every infection is a tragedy. Every infection can be prevented. Every death could have been avoided. Mask, distance, trace, simple truths that matter. Simple truths that should have be presented from the beginning at the highest levels.
So at this point, I am ready for change and yes my life depends on it. My family, our well-being, all that we love, depends on it. We want simple truths from our leaders. We want leadership that believes in science, leadership that believes in public health, leadership that puts the lives of people first and not their own interests, leadership that cares, leaderships that unites, leadership that brings calm, leadership that represents the best of who we are as humans, leadership that quite frankly, tells the truth!