Message from the Dean: Crisis and Opportunity

Dean Michelle Williams
Dean Michelle Williams; Ben Gebo / Harvard Chan School

Public health, I’ve often said, is everywhere and nowhere. Most of us take the cleanliness of our air and water for granted until there’s a contamination scare. We don’t give food supply chains a second thought unless there’s a shortage of milk or flour. And, until recently, we’d hop on a train or bus without worrying about what airborne viruses might be along for the ride.

In other words, the impact of public health is largely invisible—until there’s a crisis. Only then do we become acutely aware of the role it plays in our daily lives.

There’s no question that today, public health is everywhere. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an awakening to the many threats to health around the world—not just the deadly pathogens that can circle the globe in days but also everything from growing shortages in the global health workforce to the systemic inequities that determine who can access nutritious food, green spaces, and high-quality health care.

What’s happening is a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. But it’s also a historic opportunity to find—and build support for—solutions that are as intersectional and multidimensional as the public health challenges we face. This issue of Harvard Public Health explores a number of those challenges in depth.

The cover article looks at one of the greatest triumphs of public health: vaccines. To this day, vaccines are among our most effective tools to fight disease and death. And yet historically they remain one of the most maligned and underfunded areas of modern medicine, plagued by perverse incentives, a dearth of research, and too often, rampant disinformation. There is, however, some hope that this pandemic could finally be the catalyst for change.

Another story in this issue looks at the inextricable relationship between America’s health and economic well-being and disparities that are widening in both. Yet another covers the Rose Service Learning Fellowship and our new Mississippi Delta Partnership in Public Health program, which demonstrate the importance of stepping outside of our labs and academic halls to better understand the lived experiences of the people we seek to help. The story reminds me of the words of social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, who urges us to “get proximate” to those who suffer so that we might truly grasp the nuances of their lives—and the problems we aim to solve.

What we’ve experienced this past year is nothing short of a catastrophe, but it is by no means an anomaly. It is now up to us to leverage this public health moment to find solutions. That is one reason I am so pleased that Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, will serve as this year’s Commencement speaker. At a time when public health leadership is more important than ever, Dr. Tedros’ remarkable insight and experience could not hold more value for our community.

Michelle Williams signature

Michelle A. Williams, ScD ’91
Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development,
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School