Madeleine Wong in outdoor class setting

The Wake-up Call of COVID-19

St. Lawrence’s public health programs take aim at redefining innovation and leadership during turbulent times.

In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the urgency for innovation in the field of public health is felt worldwide. With the expansion and interdisciplinary nature of St. Lawrence’s public health programs, faculty and students are uniquely positioned to wrestle with the complexity of systems informing the successes and failures of managing the current global health crisis.

As of late March, Madeleine Wong, Associate Professor of Global Studies and endowed Trustee Professor in Public Health in the Arts, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies, was doing academic research in Ghana where the borders had been closed and she was in self-imposed isolation. Her scheduled return to the United States in April had been cancelled, and she was uncertain when she would be able to return to campus as the United States had become the latest epicenter of the pandemic. 

Wong took a break from her research in Ghana to respond to questions regarding the public health implications resulting from the novel coronavirus outbreak, and she articulated the importance of St. Lawrence’s public health programming and what it means in our current context. 

Q: How do you define public health?

Global studies uses a critical “public” approach to address contemporary health challenges facing populations and communities across the world. Within the United States, we address issues ranging from the opioid crisis created by prescription drug practices and urban air pollution and disease to gun proliferation and violence, as well as refugees being made unhealthy by mass detention, and, most urgently, the devastating global impact of the novel coronavirus.

For us, public health is an interdisciplinary field that recognizes health as a “public good” that is undermined by powerful interests. Thus denaturalized, we draw on insights from disciplines in the humanities and social sciences—and health studies among others—to understand political, economic, and cultural aspects of health and illness. We consider how social relations such as those of class, sex and gender, racialization, and disability, as well as social and environmental inequalities, shape core public health issues with implications for prevention, protection, and health promotion. We emphasize the importance of quickly learning of threats and addressing root causes with public consensus built via advanced communications and media strategies to work toward effective interventions locally and globally.

Q: What does the COVID-19 situation reveal about our understanding of public health? 

The COVID-19 outbreak is a global public health crisis which reinforces how pandemics do not recognize geographical and social borders; they do not discriminate and affect people regardless of age, gender, health, and wealth status, etc. It has brought about unprecedented health, social, economic, and environmental challenges that are disrupting every facet of life within and across local and global communities in the complex interconnected world in which we live. 

Our campus represents a microcosm of the global impact of the pandemic, with some students stuck on campus who are unable to leave due to reasons ranging from lack of resources to their home countries’ borders being closed.  

My own research into the challenges that countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have had in promptly and effectively addressing the rapid spread of the disease shows how decades of neoliberal reforms, austerity policies, and budget cuts have rendered health care systems deficient, leaving them severely short of the resources, critical medical supplies, and health care workers needed to respond to this public health crisis. Furthermore, science is playing catch-up, especially with testing due to lack of critical government funding in public health. Yet natural and human-induced environmental and climatic changes create conditions, over which we do not always have control, with profound global health, economic, and security impacts.

Critically, the COVID-19 crisis has brought to the fore the fundamental inequalities in our health systems and the subsequent fatal consequences for particular demographic groups. 

The pandemic also reveals crucial differences in social organizing across societies, particularly how inequalities and health care disparaties in our societies work, how power and prejudicial judgments shape media and popular narratives of the virus (for example, calling it the “Chinese virus” or a “hoax”), and how undesirable but unsurprising behaviors (like hoarding, price gouging, or the inability to observe social distancing measures) renders us vulnerable to the pandemic.   

This COVID-19 pandemic also forces us to consider how we cope with the current crisis—how we reflect on our responsibilities to ourselves, our families, and the (local and global) communities to which we belong. 

We see examples of the ethics of care, compassion, and solidarity with prominent athletes paying the lost wages of arena employees in the United States, the campaign celebrating health care workers in the United Kingdom (dubbed #clapforourcarers), or Cuban doctors arriving in Italy to help tackle the pandemic that has overwhelmed the health care system there, or the everyday kindness of neighbors and strangers alike volunteering their time and resources to help others.

Q: How does the current crisis inform how St. Lawrence’s public health program integrates with the needs of communities?

The COVID-19 global pandemic reveals an urgent need for more robust public health systems to tackle the resurgence of infectious diseases. There has never been a more pressing moment for public health programs to educate and train students to have a comprehensive understanding of these health challenges and to work toward creating conditions and finding effective solutions that improve health equity and promote the well-being of individuals and communities across the world. Now more than ever, the extent to which the local and the global are interconnected is made self-evident, and it is important to encourage students to make these connections consistently.

St. Lawrence’s liberal arts approach to public health offers students the opportunities to think across and beyond disciplines to understand, have a critical and experiential awareness of, and analyze the complex dimensions of global public health in an interconnected world. The local and global scramble to tackle this particular global pandemic has highlighted the critical need for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches—integrating knowledge and expertise from across the social, behavioral, communications, humanities, and biomedical fields—while also paying close attention to the significance of cultural and ethical contexts as health care professionals grapple with the decisions of who lives and who dies, or as government priorities or private interests may privilege some groups over others.  

The shift to online teaching this spring is a testament to the fact that this COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally shifted our world and how we rethink our interconnectedness and myriad modes of operation, such as how we teach creatively beyond the classroom, what we teach, how we organize supply chains, how businesses are run, how technologies evolve, how working arrangements are reorganized, and how we reimagine health care, to name a few. 

The world will be dealing with the extent and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come. Exercising some form of social distancing or quarantine has given us all a heightened awareness of our humanity and fragility, as well as values we hold dear, such as autonomy, community, family and friendship, fulfillment, equity, health, and well-being.

Q: In what ways does St. Lawrence’s public health program differ from others? 

I envison a public health program that engages students to learn, understand, and critically analyze systemic societal challenges affecting our health and our health systems, and contribute toward more socially just, culturally informed, and equitable public health solutions that enable public safety and security in light of the unprecedented impacts of COVID-19. 

Many of our students will go on to occupy important health, business, political, administrative, advocacy, and leadership positions in the future. The St. Lawrence public program—as I envisioned it in the Q&A responses—can produce students who will be transformative forces of change in society, and consequently, in local and global public health. 

St. Lawrence has the potential to be at the forefront of innovative undergraduate public health education, preparing our alumni to be leaders advancing socially just, culturally informed, equitable, and enduring public health solutions that our world sorely needs. However, this effort will require institutional commitment to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches, and, importantly, a global public health focus. 

As an independent liberal arts college, St. Lawrence is not encumbered by entrenched institutional relationships that hamper our ability to innovate. In addition, the novelty of our program and our interest in keeping it cutting edge gives us a perfect opportunity at this time to incorporate the many issues that the COVID-19 pandemic throws up into our already existing courses and to develop new ones that focus on global pandemics. We can create a vibrant, innovative public health program on our own terms, preparing students to think expansively and incisively, informed by multiple perspectives, to better understand health in our own communities and globally.

Q: What most excites you about the future of St. Lawrence’s public health program?

In our view, there is no point trying to emulate universities with large programs in medicine and allied health sciences. Instead, we are excited by the possibility of leading efforts to build a truly interdisciplinary program that appeals to the broad, eclectic interests of St. Lawrence students. I imagine an aspiring medical student using Black Mirror to examine ethics in the operating room or an art history major inspired by Introduction to Public Health—one of our gateway courses—to study representations of pain in Western art. 

The complexities of public health in the 21st century require creative problem solving. We believe that this approach can bring St. Lawrence new students who are interested in addressing health and serving the public in innovative ways, as this is what is needed to ensure a healthier common future locally, nationally, and globally.

To learn about supporting the public health program, contact Terri Selby, 315-229-5542,