The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all Americans in multiple domains of life (e.g. social, economic). However, the most nefarious effect has been the amplification of the inequality that has always been present in American society. These effects converged with events that highlighted the racism that fuels economic inequities and health disparities. Breonna Taylor was murdered on March 13th, 2020. Soon after, social media feeds and news outlets publicized the murder of Ahmad Aubrey, followed by the murder of George of Floyd on May 25, 2020. My physical location in Richmond, Virginia, and my COVES Fellowship with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) placed me at the center of these events. My days were spent researching the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on ethnic and racial minority communities and my nights were ushered in with chants that challenged the principal causes of these disparities. These experiences taught me more about advocacy, policy, and change in a matter of months than I anticipated learning at the onset of my fellowship.
Around 7 PM each night for weeks, I would peer out of my bedroom window at the protesters walking, driving, and cycling down West Cary street as helicopters hovered over the roof. I have lived in Richmond, Virginia for almost four years but have yet to witness a social movement that has united the community at this scale. In a matter of months, many of the colonial-era statues erected to glorify arbiters of hatred and dehumanization were toppled or formally removed. Over the years, I have seen numerous policy-based attempts to achieve the same goal. However, a movement born of a public tired of ignoring the deleterious effects of institutional racism achieved in months what these formal political processes were unable to. It was a stark reminder of the power of the public to spur a movement that achieves radical change at multiple levels. Diverse groups of community members, advocates, and allies came together and affirmed the importance of advocating for an equitable society. This same integration of diverse perspectives working towards a common good characterized my work with the VDH’s Office of Health Equity. The fact that a statewide office dedicated to identifying and addressing health disparities exists is transformative and progressive. The projects I worked on this summer included:
- A project that entailed using statistical imputation methods to fill in missing race and ethnicity variables for a research data set
- Building a social determinants of health model that will be used to identify neighborhoods with a high proportion of people that would be considered high-risk based on social, economic and health risk factors
- Blog posts that explained research and statistical methods and findings in a publicly accessible format
- Compiling talking points for a meeting aimed at addressing increases in incidents of discrimination and violence toward Asian Americans
- Aiding with the creation of a draft memorandum to formally declare racism as a public health emergency in the state of Virginia
Ironically, one of the most challenging aspects of my fellowship was translating scientific research into a publicly accessible format. After being tasked with creating blog posts for the VDH website, I realized that the jargon-filled academic writing I had become accustomed to was my comfort zone. Publicly accessible formats of scientific communication are rarely emphasized as an essential skill in academia. However, the communication failures observed across this pandemic highlight the pitfalls associated with this deficit in the scientific community. Communication skills, outreach, and a basic understanding of science policy are essential skills that have implications as transformative and essential as groundbreaking scientific findings.
My fellowship experience has taught me that it is imperative to continually challenge myself to move beyond the status quo of thinking and writing in a way that is only accessible to academics and scientists who speak the same language. In a public health context, strategic communication about the process of science can make a tremendous difference in public perceptions and buy-in. The public is primarily accustomed to seeing the end results of science. Consequently, seeing the scientific process play out in real-time in the midst of a period filled with anxiety has been untenable for many segments of the population. To be fair, even seasoned scientists and public health officials have difficulty assessing risk in the face of an infinite number of complex scenarios. Nevertheless, the scientific community has a responsibility to approach policy and outreach in an accessible and realistic manner.
Although undertaking a fellowship of this nature remotely was unexpected and at times challenging, I am grateful for the invaluable experience I have gained. The COVES Fellowship gave me a unique opportunity to apply my scientific knowledge in a direct and impactful way. The experience challenged my perspective of what it means to use science as a form of advocacy and has made me a better clinician and scientist.