Dr. Leana Wen likes to remind people that on any given day, public health saved your life—you just don’t know it. The former health commissioner of the city of Baltimore and a visiting professor at the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health, Wen joined Dr. Larry Brilliant—an epidemiologist who worked with the World Health Organization eradicate smallpox— to look at some of the lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and what changes we can make going forward.
Both doctors, in a conversation with TIME’s Alice Park during Thursday’s TIME 100 Talks: Finding Hope, agree that the whole point of a good public health infrastructure is to prevent bad things from happening—to stop disease before it starts—and that takes money and commitment. “How much would you pay to have no fires ever happen? How much would you say to have no burglaries happen?” Brilliant asks. The answer: a lot, but when it comes to public health, we’re not making the investment.
“We’re successful when we prevent disease,” says Wen. “But when something is invisible like that, we become the first thing on the chopping block.” The result has been the loss of tens of thousands of health care workers around the country over the years as governments slash funding and jobs to balance budgets.
Not only must that end, not only must the U.S. re-invest in a robust public health infrastructure—including continuing to help fund the WHO—so too must we realize that in a time when diseases from remote places are just an airplane ride away, we have to become better citizens of the world. “This is not a time to think we can stop a disease at the border in San Francisco or New York City,” Brilliant says. “We need to look at places in Africa where blood-borne diseases begin, or Southeast Asia and South Asia where respiratory or intestinal diseases like cholera begin.”
Both Wen and Brilliant are hopeful—if cautiously so—that the current crisis may lead to the kinds of reforms that can spare us the next pandemic. “I’m optimistic that we can,” Brilliant says. “I’m concerned that we won’t.” The choice, in other words, is entirely ours.
This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields sharing their ideas for navigating the pandemic. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.
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Contributor: Jeffrey Kluger