Danielle Dentremont ‘25
On Wednesday Nov. 15, Dr. Sandro Galea visited the Rehm Library to discuss the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and how they can be applied in mitigating the next pandemic. Galea is a physician, author and professor and dean at Boston University School of Public Health. In October 2021, Galea published The Contagion Next Time in which he outlines the current weaknesses in and means of strengthening public health in anticipation of future outbreaks.
Originally, Galea was scheduled to speak at College of the Holy Cross in March 2020, but, as he put it, “a pandemic got in the way.” Despite the marginal change in the landscape of public health since March 2020, Galea said, “A lot of what I would’ve talked about then is the same as what I am going to talk about now.”
Galea began with citing “what went right” in terms of flattening the curve of COVID-19. One such example was that vaccines exceeded expectations in terms of development and efficacy. Galea compared the creation and rollout of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to the mumps vaccine. The mumps vaccine development, requiring four years, was considered rapid in the world of vaccines; in contrast, two COVID-19 mRNA vaccines of greater than 90 percent efficacy rates were available to the public in well under a year after the onset of COVID-19.
Despite such success in vaccines, Galea noted the inconceivability of COVID-19 becoming the third leading cause of death — behind heart disease and cancer — in the United States only months after the world first heard of the virus. Citing that 700,000 Americans died of COVID-19, Galea reminded the audience: “I never want to forget when we are talking about numbers that we are talking about people’s lives.”
Galea pointed out that the lives in question often belonged to marginalized populations because, as Galea said, “the virus does discriminate.” While Galea focused on racial differences in the impacts of COVID-19 for the purpose of illustration, he noted that similar disparities could easily be highlighted between other groups, such as high-income versus low-income groups.
Through the lens that health care extends beyond medicine, Galea posed a metaphor to the audience: Billy Johnson was a poor, blind African American in Texas who was turned away from the hospital for malaria treatment. Galea then asked: “So, what killed him?” Members of the audience pointed to prejudice on the hospital’s part based on Galea’s race, disability and socioeconomic status in addition to malaria. Galea said that COVID-19 must be considered in the same manner.
In reference to the metaphor, Galea said, “Our dominant paradigm for health is all about malaria, just as COVID-19 is about the virus and the vaccines.”
Galea continued that 90 percent of America’s health care funding is spent on medicine, but, as the Billy Johnson metaphor conveyed, there are other factors that impact health. So, Galea indicated that misinvestment — and particularly an underinvestment in local and public health — exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis.
Looking towards the next pandemic, Galea called upon his audience to a “reclamation of liberal public health.” This includes epistemic humility, meaning that scientists must be clear with the public about what they do not know. Similarly, Galea asked the next generation of scientists to practice radical compassion, which could include the consideration that sending only “essential workers” into the public places certain groups at a higher risk of infection.
On COVID-19 as a whole, Galea said, “It becomes even more of a tragedy if we do not learn from it.”