Experts in medicine and disease prevention underscored the importance of building trust in order to promote global health equitably at the inaugural Harvard Global Health Institute Symposium Wednesday.
The daylong event featured more than 20 speakers from around the world and was streamed live via Zoom.
In his keynote speech, Ahmed Ogwell Ouma — the acting director of Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — shared the lessons he learned in protecting public health, with a focus on inequities in the global health system.
Ouma discussed health inequities in the global response to mpox and Covid-19.
“When an outbreak is small, as Africa, we are on our own,” Ouma said. “But when an outbreak is big, like we saw during the pandemic, the resources are forecast on other parts of the world who are better resourced.”
Ouma proposed a “new public health order” in which African nations would strengthen health workers and institutions promoting health, form health alliances with other nations that respect their priorities, and invest in domestic vaccine products and health care supplies.
The Institute also co-hosted a panel on “The Value of Planetary Health to Global Health Equity” with the Planetary Health Alliance. Featuring five panelists — including United Nations Development Programme HIV, Health, and Development Group Director Mandeep Dhaliwal and Planetary Health Alliance Founding Director Samuel Meyers — the panel addressed the connection between climate change and poor health outcomes.
Meyers pointed to food access, air and water quality, exposure to disease and extreme weather, and land habitability as factors influenced by changes in the global environment.
“All of these human caused, global environmental changes, which are accelerating, are actually interacting with each other in very complex ways that we are just starting to understand, but that affect the foundational qualities for human health and wellbeing,” Meyers said. “As a result, we are seeing growing global burdens of disease across every dimension of health.”
Another panel, titled “Community Response to Emerging Infectious Diseases” and co-hosted with the public health organization Partners in Health, described the danger that low trust in government poses to pandemic response. Discussants included Boston Public Health Commission Executive Director Bisola Ojikutu, Harvard Medical School Associate professor Joia S. Mukherjee, and Partners in Health Senior Advisor on Health Systems Strengthening Jean-Gregory Jerome.
The panelists argued that social inequities such as homelessness not only make pandemic responses more difficult but also reduce trust for such interventions.
“I think that’s part of the brutality of this emerging infectious disease global health security architecture,” Mukherjee said. “It’s clear to people in the community that you don’t really care about me, you care about you. You’re trying to protect it from coming to your doorstep.”
Ojikutu described what she said was the “enormous shift to private industry in controlling what was happening” in the American response to Covid-19.
“Public health infrastructure has been so devalued, so underappreciated for decades,” Ojikutu said. “It’s been funded to focus on disease entities as opposed to the infrastructure.”
Another panel discussed how lessons learned from the HIV epidemic could improve the fairness and efficacy of healthcare. Participants included University of Botswana professor Mosepele Mosepele, Desmond Tutu Health Foundation CEO Linda-Gail Bekker, and Cooper Smith Program Manager Maureen Luba.
The panel emphasized the need for health organizations to engage with the groups they are protecting.
Mosepele used the Botswana Presidential Covid-19 Task Force, in which members traveled far and wide and used television and radio to connect with local communities, as an example of community engagement.
“The whole idea was we could not form an appropriate, acceptable response that did not speak to the values, the expectations, the history of the people we were making the response for,” Mosepele said.
—Staff writer Alexander I. Fung can be reached at email@example.com.