The World Needs Public Health Leadership Right Now
Public Health victories are very complicated. Often, they are heralded in the media for a short while, with politicians occasionally claiming the credit, and the actual voices and advocates of success stories largely going unheard. Eventually, public health victories such as the eradication of polio reach a level of normalcy and then they are forgotten. In other words, public health suffers from being a victim of its own successes, because for public health to succeed, we often have to remedy societal ills to the point we do not remember those problems ever existed. Paradoxically, public health leaders and advocates are now facing a global pandemic with the world watching our every move and listening to our words. In this moment, students are presented with the opportunity to be louder than ever and schools of public health have the opportunity to elevate their voices.
I have long wondered if academia should play a more prominent role in matters of leadership and governance. The notion of science being impartial and the idea of scientists being the apolitical handy-people who provide the data and evidence that informs policy is a dereliction of the important duty that scientists have: seeing that their research actually gets implemented. Public health practitioners must, therefore, move beyond just creating the science that informs policy decisions and take an active role in deciding what the best policies are for the marginalized populations we serve. Consequently, that will involve taking a seat at the tables where decisions are being made.
For some public health students like myself, the closest we come to the Hippocratic Oath are the promises we recall making to ourselves as we write the perfect personal statement to the programs that will help us achieve that mission. For others, it’s the moment on admitted students’ day where we all recite the school’s Public Health Oath. Yet, in my first year at the Columbia Mailman School, as I connected with my peers and classmates from across the CORE, I started to understand that public health students are very internally motivated, oftentimes by the personal experiences and circumstances that brought them into this field.
Today, in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic, I am learning that public health students do not only want to help, but they also want to lead.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have seen my peers coordinate with students and faculty from across the Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) to start the Columbia Student Service Corps (CSSC) as a way to support New York-Presbyterian Hospital and our surrounding Washington Heights community on issues ranging from mental health care to patient information dissemination. Almost the entire Mailman student community is involved in these efforts. With much less guidance and fewer resources than policymakers and top leadership officials, I have seen my colleagues take the initiative and dive headfirst into unchartered territory to find solutions and protect our community. If you ever needed any confirmation that public health practitioners are fearless leaders, this crisis is it.
Now is the time for public health schools across the nation to equip their students with the tools and resources they need to be effective leaders in uncertain times like these. We must look to not only train the best epidemiologists and biostatisticians, but we must also aim to equip students with the resources and platforms to pursue leadership roles in politics if they wish. In the 2018 mid-term elections, there was a record number of scientists running for office, with several of them gaining seats in Congress.
Lauren Underwood, a registered nurse from Illinois, Kim Schrier, a pediatrician from Washington State, and Joe Cunningham, an ocean scientist from South Carolina are just a few of the new faces that joined the 116th Congress. While this is encouraging, the increasing level of cynicism towards science and evidence-based research means that there is still much work to be done. In the face of this, schools of public health must grasp the urgency for interdisciplinary training that will provide their students with the technical skills to conduct public health research and the competencies that will help them lead effectively in governmental and other leadership roles in a time when science is increasingly being disregarded. Public health students are an untapped resource for compassionate and essential leadership in trying times. When we succeed in curbing the COVID-19 pandemic (and we will succeed) we will have a crop of public health leaders ready and prepared to defeat the next one.
Ogooluwa Fayemiwo is a 2021 MPH candidate in the Department of Epidemiology. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Sciences with a minor in Humanities from The University of South Florida.
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