Scientific evidence and global collaboration can help end the pandemic

University of Miami President Julio Frenk.
By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

University of Miami President Julio Frenk.

Scientific evidence and global collaboration can help end the pandemic

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
During a virtual panel discussion hosted by the University of Washington, President Julio Frenk discussed global responses to the pandemic—and what is needed to move forward.

University of Miami President Julio Frenk, a noted global public health scholar, said that as the boundaries between local and global populations continue to blur, we must collaborate with partners around the world to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Global health is about understanding the way in which events that happen in one part of the world affect other parts of the world, and the pandemic has obviously brought that into amazing and sharp contrast,” said Frenk, who served as minister of health of Mexico as well as dean of the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University before coming to the University of Miami. “It also underscores the need to take that population perspective to devise solutions because we can only address these challenges with global solutions.”

Frenk spoke at a virtual panel discussion Thursday night hosted by the University of Washington, where University of Miami alumna Ana Mari Cauce, is president. The talk, “Creating a Better Normal: Improving Population Health for Everyone,” was moderated by Hanson Hosein, who leads the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership graduate program.

The University of Washington’s Seattle campus is home to the offices of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent population health research center that aims to provide an impartial, evidence-based picture of global health, where Frenk serves as chair of the board of directors. Projections from the IHME have been used widely by government officials and the media to gauge the future severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, both in the United States and now for nations around the world.

The discussion included insights from University of Washington faculty members about how to improve population healtheliminating diseases and injuries while also considering the intersecting and overlapping factors that influence healthin the environment, infrastructure, and in the health care sector. In 2016 Cauce identified population health as a major initiative for her institution, propelling research on ways to stem health disparities in the United States. Cauce emphasized the role scholarship can play in addressing the hardships that Black and indigenous people, as well as all people of color and women, face during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has revealed economic, social, and environmental inequities that have been ignored for too long,” said Cauce, who also is a professor of psychology and American ethnic studies. “We have the opportunity to use this crisis to transform the world, addressing both longstanding inequities and looming crises, such as climate change.”

Frenk and UW moderator

During the discussion, Frenk shared his observations about how nations around the world have responded to COVID-19, including his surprise by the variation in response among nations. For example, in nations with populist leaders that offer isolationist perspectives, he said, often the rates of transmission tend to be the highest because there is a general distrust of scientists. Yetmany countries with female heads of government are taking a more balanced approach by listening to scientists’ advice. These nations have fared much better in their ability to curtail COVID-19 transmission rates, he noted.

“The countries that have had the best responses have a disproportionate amount of governments led by women,” Frenk said. “And I hope that one of the effects of this pandemic is it puts to rest the absurd idea that women are not suited for leadership, which is still so prevalent.”

Frenk also rejected the notion that governments must choose between protecting people’s health and reviving the economy.

“Reactivating the economy while protecting health as twin and synergistic objectives are things we can pursue if we follow the evidence and do not politicize the way we face the pandemic,” he said.

Shifting to his own population at the University of Miami, Frenk explained how he made the decision to welcome students back to campus for blended instruction. He said that his decisions regarding COVID-19 are always grounded in scientific evidence. Armed with information from the IMHE and other sources, his team crafted a set of protocols for campus that included mandatory face coverings, investing in equipment to make physical distancing possible in classrooms, and creating a robust testing and tracing program.

“What I saw was a dichotomous discourse, as if being on campus was full risk but telling people to stay at home was no risk. But there are risks in both approaches,” he said. “Using the data, I realized we could actually take a calculated risk of opening if we did it the right way.”

Finally, when asked about the deterioration of trust in science occurring now in the United States regarding COVID-19, Frenk said the strategies used by University leaders could serve as an example.

“Universities are committed to the pursuit of truth,” Frenk said. “We understand that truth is never static; it’s a dynamic concept, but we have got to insist on the use of evidence to guide decision-making. This is what we do, and in educating the next generation of leaders, we need to emphasize those values.”