Entertainment venues are shut, travel is curtailed and offices are depopulated, but getting to herd immunity could bring a return to a so-called “new normal” and a hefty dose of celebration. However, according to public health leaders, that goal could remain elusive without a concerted effort to vaccinate in developing nations and combat vaccine hesitancy everywhere, among other challenges.
During a recent webinar (February 4) hosted by Yale-NUS College in Singapore, Yale School of Public Health Dean Sten H. Vermund provided hundreds of people in the virtual audience with a rundown on what these obstacles are — and how public health experts can help.
“If we permit coronavirus to circulate extensively around the world, you will continue to develop new mutants,” said Vermund, M.D., Ph.D. “For us to protect Singapore and the United States, we have to stop transmission in Nigeria and Brazil. We need a global perspective.”
The panel discussion, titled “Reimagining Public Health: Global Leadership Perspectives for a Post-COVID World,” also featured Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health Dean Teo Yik-Ying, Ph.D., M.S.C., and Yale-NUS College Dean of Faculty Jeannette Ickovics, Ph.D., who is also the Samuel and Liselotte Herman Professor of the Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health. Together, the three speakers detailed the unique lessons that the world could learn from the early days of the pandemic, as well as the interventions that could still make a difference in the coronavirus’s spread.
Ickovics said that human irrationality seems to be a large factor in some of the resistance against public health guidelines, though this is seen more in America and Europe than in Asia. She urged that cross-sector collaboration is essential to fight against the fatigue many feel as lockdowns and other measures drag on.
Ickovics added that while the pandemic rages on, there are other priority areas in public health that require our ongoing attention such as tobacco use, hypertension and obesity – which remain among the leading causes of death globally. “And before you dismiss these as not being as important at this moment in time, I want to remind you that it’s these very risk behaviors and chronic illnesses that place individuals and communities at greater risk for COVID,” she said.
For Teo, one of the biggest lessons in the coronavirus pandemic had been learned years prior. Singapore’s experience with the SARS epidemic in 2003 galvanized the city-state’s hospitals, essential medical supply stores and public health protocols in case another virus arose in the future. Seventeen years later, when the novel coronavirus began spreading across the world, Teo said he was proud to admit that Singapore has weathered the pandemic relatively well, mistakes and all.
“It is not all rosy in Singapore,” he said. “But one thing that is clear: We identified where are the weaknesses, which are the population segments that are vulnerable and neglected, and find ways to manage those problems. And I think that is what we need to move forward to do in the second part of the outbreak.”
Vermund agreed. He spent part of the hour-long discussion sharing strategies to boost vaccination rates and deal with skepticism — two very important tasks for the coming months.
And during the question-and-answer session, when asked about leadership lessons gained during the pandemic, Vermund said that he had learned just how energetic, effective, exciting and important the work at the Yale School of Public Health is.
“Whether it was on the policy side or the forecasting and modeling side, the public health response, contact tracing, education, risk reduction and mitigation, product development … at any imaginable level, we have been able to engage communities and make a difference,” he said. “It’s been a tremendous opportunity for those of us trained in public health to make concrete contributions to battling the pandemic.”