I didn’t think I would cry. But seeing this day come to pass brought tears to my eyes. Finally, we honored the legacy of Dr. Jacob Plange-Rhule with the first ever prize for his contribution to the Global Research in Implementation and Translation Science Consortium. Jacob had this vision to train the next generation of scholars interested in health services research, hypertension research, especially at the community level. He was one of the pioneers of the community based salt reduction interventions for blood pressure control in Africa. He led the first studies in this field. He also led the task-shifting strategies for hypertension control in Ghana. To know him was to know a very gentle man, a very kind man, with a great personality, and a great love for all things Ghana. To think that we will never see his smile, never hear his voice, remains painful to him. But know that he will live on with this prize, fills my heart with great joy. Until we meet again, continue to Rest in the Bosom of the Lord.
I have a friend in India. She needs your prayers. India is literally on fire. I asked how she was doing. Her parents are both in the hospital on ventilators. She is at home trying to breathe while remaining calm. Every thing is a mess and their is no help in sight. I asked what can I do, even though I know nothing I do may help. I said I’ll pray. I did. But to my prayer, I want to add that whoever is reading this should please keep India in mind. People are literally dying. There are no hospital beds, no ventilators, many are dying at home, gasping for air, a precious commodity there these days. According to NPR, there are also no tests. No one is doing coronavirus tests and if you do get tested, your results may come in five days later. By that time, people are dead, even cremated. The country reached a milestone this week: 402,000 cases per day, more than any country on any day since the pandemic started. Some suggest it may reach 1 million cases by mid-May. Deaths too will rise. And the light and the end of the tunnel seems uncertain. My friend asked that we pray for India. I ask that you do the same and keep them in mind. None of us are safe from the pandemic until we all are. What maybe happening in India may seem far away but understand that India has 1.4 billion people. Everything that happens in India affects us all. We will not be able to get rid of this pandemic if we don’t keep India in mind.
I got my second COVID-19 vaccination shot yesterday. I am elated to finally complete this process. So many unnecessary lives were lost just so I live. Something I don’t take for granted. That and the fact that racism was at the root cause of the inequities we all witnessed first hand with the pandemic. Racism meant that there were structural barriers, pervasive one that contributed to thousands of unnecessary deaths. Racism meant that individuals and families and communities of color were most impacted by the pandemic. Racism also meant that more healthcare workers of color, an estimated 3,600 health care workers in the USA died from the pandemic and two thirds were people of color. Let that sink it for a moment. An estimated 66% of the health care workers that died as a result of the pandemic were people of color. So yea, racism is a serious public health problem and I applaud bold leaders like the director of CDC for describing it as such. For me, I am alert, restless maybe, for light, for change. Something has to give.
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.
I told my husband yesterday that I was the Beyoncé of grantwriting. He laughed. I was serious. Imagine breaking records with all the grants in my head, the same way she broke the record for the most Grammy wins for any female artist over the weekend. Something about what Beyonce said in her acceptance speech made me realize that it has always been inside of me, this desire to be creative. It’s why I am drawn to grantwriting. I have been asking questions all my life that the only logical way to creatively ask them and get paid or call it a career is through grantwriting. So I am keeping this one here for the moment when I too start to break records. It’s coming. I put in the time. I do my part to be truly innovative. Not the type to recycle ideas, but the type to think outside the box literally. One of my favorite grants of all time written by a dear friend noted the following and I’m paraphrasing: ‘individual researchers innate tendency towards homogeneous ideas, are part of the reasons why we find ourselves in the mess called health.’ His words about all of us being homogeneous is seared deeply in my soul. He is also right. It’s the reason why I deliberately look for new people to collaborate with. Deliberately even sell failure to them when we begin so long as they are willing to begin. It’s the reason why I always seek change. For if you want to be Beyoncé, then you have to be prepared to change the music all the time. I am.
In my years of grant writing I have noticed that even the well funded researcher recycles their grants all the time. They get funded so why change. The ideas may be couched under different titles, but it’s the same ideas. That they even get the funding isn’t the answer either because when they are done, nothing really changes. I used to be enamored with the funding but these days my eyes are open and I’m telling the truth. Nothing is also sustained. ‘Why bother with a grant or yet another study if it will only be fleeting?’ Another quote form one of my favorite papers on sustainability. I can tell you the ending from day one with studies that won’t last because, well they have been consistently telling us the ending from day 1, if only our eyes were open long enough to see.
I prefer to be different even if it means failing or being called ambitious. When sustainability is your mission, your ideas will ambitious. All my earlier grants deliberately had the word sustainability in their title. Even though they all failed, they made me a better grant writer, one that I might add is better off than those who get all the funding. For failure let’s me keep dreaming, keep fine tuning the ideas. I prefer this process too of reimagining what it would be like if we tried this way or move in this direction or even throw everything we know out of the door and start afresh. I long for innovation. I am not afraid to go talk to an entrepreneur, to ask how did they come up with their ideas in hopes that I can bring it to my field. I have done so a lot. Recent example, altMBA.
As if my plate wasn’t already full, last Thursday I graduated from Seth Godin’s altMBA program designed for people who want to make a difference in the world. It was an intensive 30 day program. It also changed my life. I was in a learning community with thought leaders from Facebook, Shopify, people with their own business, people making music, all of us with the intense desire to be the difference, to be the light, the world desperately needed. I learnt more than my soul could even take from people with ideas and perspectives vastly different from my own. They opened my eyes and my ears to the possibilities inherent in ourselves if only we believed that we are capable. I understood my assets and boundaries a lot better, made sense of my narratives, publicly spoke for change and achieved my goal written from day 1, about 4 days before the deadline. By the end of the program, I knew in my heart that my journey through this life is only beginning. And I am the Beyonce of grantwriting, one much prepared to dance with fear, prepared to do the hard part even if I fail, prepared to make a ruckus for a sustainable platform for research. As if I don’t have enough to do, I am also the next leader, of what working mothers should keep. All my stories will be told as I continue to do the emotional labor necessary with telling the truth of our experience for our silence, for our survival. Keep being the Beyoncé of your field.
Yesterday, I told a friend that I got vaccinated. He said he will not be getting vaccinated. I stopped, looked him in the eye and asked why. He said he has been using ivermectin prescribed by his veterinarian and from all he has been reading about it, including what he found on YouTube it protects from the virus. I was shocked. I thought I had heard it all with the pandemic. So I did my own research, found the article below and shared with him. Ivermectin is useless against my Covid19, I said. The vaccine however, can give the hope you need against the virus. Only time will tell if my public health approach worked with him but I can’t help but ponder a bit more on the word Hope and what it means during a pandemic of a lifetime.
Hope is a four letter word, often difficult to imagine. Many evoke it in times of trouble. Some say it helps to maintain a sense of self, a reason for being. Others suggest it pertains to nothing. Still to have hope in times of uncertainties, to grab it by the next and use it to control your circumstances is something many dream of. Yesterday, for the first time in a year since the pandemic started, hope was on full display with President Biden’s speech. In contrast to excessive negation and downplaying of the pandemic, President Biden gave us hope. Echoes of the mindless frenzy of his predecessor’s own reporting of the states of affairs seem to pale in comparison to brutal honesty and genuine care for the unnecessary loss and pain brought on by the pandemic. But to ask for hope, to make us all believe that it is within our reach if only we do our part was startling to me. This need for hope is not new. We have all been here before. Even when the right and wrongs of the pandemic were debated endlessly in the beginning, the World Health Organization Director reminded us all of how ‘vulnerable we are, how connected we are, and how dependent we are to each other.’
Hope isn’t a four letter word reserved for one person, but for all of us. Hope projects an image of optimism that all of us can aspire too. A place where life as we know it, can somehow return to order. The symbol of July 4th gatherings that he referred to towards the end of his speech is one such symbol of hope. The lurking hint of control, of semblance of life as we once knew it, albeit for a gathering over barbecue is something we can all achieve if only we do our part. Something that I pray those inclined to individuality can overcome for the greater good of the collective. But let me zero in to those who still think this virus is a hoax. Your life now is in your hands. That the simple truth of hope even in a vaccine is something you too can aspire towards. Even the one some of you look up saw hope in the vaccine against all odds. Hope belongs to us all, even you if you do your part. Though his heart of darkness may plague you still, all I want to say is give hope a try. It can literally save your life.
I have been thinking lately about the future. Reimagining the possibilities on one’s own terms. I imagine that our minds and gaze in opposition, are liberated and transformed for greatness. Our desires, agency and voice disrupts any fixation to hold us down to any preconceived notion of what it means to excel. Language is at the heart of this disruption. One that allows us all to soar on wings like eagle, to trouble the water, knowing fully well that a world is waiting for us to rise. And we will. To exhale, we no longer wait or ask for your permission. To lead, we no longer fear whether you follow or not. To speak, we not only stay at the margins but move to the center and vice versa. That the future belongs to those who dare dream keeps my alert. That and the role young people themselves will play, for the future, afterall belongs to them.
For the past three years I have been co-leading a program known as 4 youth by youth, where young people can work not only as beneficiary or partners with researchers but also leaders with a voice in their own health care. We have organized contests, engaged close to 5,500 youth, all with the goal to foster their own unique abilities to reimagine health in ways that make sense to them. At the end of one of our innovation bootcamps, we awarded and gave three finalists an opportunity to move on to a pilot-testing phase, where they were tasked with working to implement their ideas in real-world settings. The top three teams were stellar, but it’s the team that came in 4th (the group in green in the picture below) that this keep focuses on.
Almost all the finalists were students or those with keen interest in public health. The 4th team were as well but daring. They were made up of Engineers and computer studies, with a keen interest in moving health for young people beyond the typical boundaries. Their assets meant that they were forever tinkering with new ideas, new ways of thinking about health, not just for young people, but all people in general. Enter the annual Oxfam Challenge. Just when you think your hands are full, these young people, the 4th team, dared to dream for something bigger. The rose to the occasion and pitched yet another new idea focused on improving the state of health care in Nigeria using data-driven mechanisms. Not only are they now working to empower frontline healthcare workers, but they also seek to deliver health care services and resources to patients themselves.
When I saw the image of my 4th place team, now in a first place position, all that came to mind is that the future is sterling, if only we let our young grow. The future belongs to them, if only we let them succeed. The future belongs to them, if only we raise and nurture their potentials. The future belongs to them, if only we uplift and celebrate them. The future belongs to them, if only we let them be. Our 4th place team, now in 1st place is striving towards greatness with the Oxfam innovation challenge. Their resilience, their achievement and contribution to health is worthy of praises. We still have work to do for our future. But keep young people in mind. The future belongs to them, if only we let them lead.
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.
Yesterday, my husband, a frontline healthcare worker got his covid19 vaccination. I was elated, emotional and happy for him and all healthcare workers who risked their lives throughout the pandemic to save lives often at the expense of their own life.
Just this fall, on two separate occasions, we had to go into quarantine due to my husband’s exposure to covid19. Every experience was debilitating as it was also occurring in the middle of homeschooling, in the middle of me teaching a class this fall, and yes in the middle of my maternity leave. Seeing him receive his shot was emotional and hopeful. Hopeful because we can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s still a long way to go, wearing masks of course, but the light is there. Hopeful, because although more than 300,000 lives paid the ultimate sacrifice, for them, and because of them, we get to live. Hopeful, because as family members of frontline health workers, we can begin to breathe easy now and not be afraid of another experience of exposure, even another bout of testing and waiting for result. The wait were so unbearable. Hopeful because this is science at it’s best. We are at our best when we work hard together and for that I am thankful to all those who worked tirelessly to bring these vaccines to life. I am also hopeful for a post pandemic future. But we have so much work to do if we are going to get to the bottom of why covid19 happened in the first place. I am hopeful for more beautiful questions that are sustainable and focused on predicting and preventing the next pandemics or even addressing all the systemic issues that were neglected during this pandemic, issues such as equity, and access, racism, identity, and poverty. For now, I’ll keep hope, even with this pandemic.
It seems so simple, that people should matter with efforts to curtail a pandemic. Yet we are our own worst enemies. Case in point, an essay I read yesterday on the blog sapiens one why the CDC needs social science. Robert Hahn an anthropologist and epidemiologist who recently retired from the CDC, shared insights of how people actual interact, their behaviors, needs and even concerns, have yet to penetrate the soul of the nation’s top primary health agency. And we wonder why we are in the mess we find ourselves?
As a public health researcher, why people refuse to wear mask for example, remains one of the public health mysteries of 2020, and one that truly lacks any answer besides the fact that we still don’t keep people in mind. Robert Hahn takes this a step further and offers another explanation. The idea that sickness remains a biological concept. As a result, how even sick people react, what behaviors they engage in even while sick is often an afterthought and not a forethought. It’s no surprise then, that this pandemic continues to persist, 10 months later.
I’ll like to add one more thought to his explanation and that is people should be at the heart of every response to public health, especially during and after a pandemic. We also need to do more polylogue or confront people with diverse and sometimes conflicting points of views that require critical evaluation. These forms of engagement with people will be crucial with efforts to ensure vaccine uptake. Myself and my household are ready for the vaccine. But I do recognize that some folks may not be and so it’s our duty to keep them in mind on the journey to end this pandemic for good.