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by Sasha Gerber


On February 1st, as part of Duke Research Week 2022, a panel of experts gathered to discuss the social policy implications of COVID-19. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, and Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Institute, were joined by four Sanford faculty members: Anna Gassman-Pines, Jennifer Lansford, Charlene Wong, and moderator Mark McClellan.

Sasha Gerber PPS'24

As we head into another year of the pandemic, it is critical that we analyze how our social policies are being implemented on all levels. The speakers highlighted research that has exposed gaps in public health initiatives and offered insight into how to improve social policies moving forward in the context of COVID-19.

Dean Jha kicked off the conversation by admitting what we were all feeling: “Everyone has COVID fatigue, but we aren’t done with it yet.” However, instead of bemoaning the challenges ahead of us, he outlined a game plan to respond to the next variant. To be prepared, Jha believes “we must update vaccines, flood hotspots with tests, encourage masking during surges, and build up our stores of therapeutics.” He explained that there is a gap between what the United States should be able to accomplish and what we have done so far. Instead of relying on other countries to report a new variant, we must act swiftly to identify it ourselves. His passionate and determined tone inspired me to reframe my own thoughts about the pandemic response, from viewing it as a hopeless mess to an evolving situation we are equipped to handle.

Jha then turned the discussion to the topic of effective communication strategies, laying the groundwork for animated discourse about the power and prevalence of misinformation. Dr. Charlene Wong supported Jha’s idea of “flooding the zone” with precise and up-to-date information to prevent voids where uninformed individuals can step in. Wong also stressed the importance of speaking honestly and sharing when there is uncertainty. Ultimately, the goal is to give patients the most accurate information “so that they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families.”

An innovative social policy Wong helped design and implement last summer was an incentive program to encourage North Carolinians to get their COVID vaccine. For many people, “there were real cost barriers… and they didn’t have transportation,” so the small, guaranteed incentives were key motivators to get people to vaccination sites.

Reviewing the effort to vaccinate North Carolinians who faced financial and logistical barriers set the stage for a broader discussion about the obstacles many employees face in the COVID era. Anna Gassman-Pines shared insights from her research about employment policies for low wage workers and explained how the pandemic highlighted and exacerbated the challenges service workers were already facing.

Her research was originally supposed to examine the effects of the proposed “Fair Work Week” policy on working-class families in Philadelphia. However, the policy was suspended indefinitely due to COVID. The resulting “instability and unpredictability in both access to employment in general as well as work schedules,” has contributed to an influx of challenges with mental health, Gassman-Pines said.

It was particularly jarring to hear that in the fall of 2020, “nearly half of the parents in [the] sample screening were positive for major depression, generalized anxiety, or both.” Gassman-Pines’ work is also contributing to the body of knowledge surrounding the impacts of stimulus checks, which “made a real difference for material hardship and well-being for the families” in her study. More broadly, her findings can help us understand the best kind of emergency response that policies can provide during the pandemic and in the future.

Jennifer Lansford added that these trends are cross-cultural, citing her research on how families from nine different countries are faring in the pandemic. She noted how, across the board, there have been “behavioral adjustments pre- and post-pandemic” with an increase in anxiety and arguments, especially in families where the parent-child relationships are less open. Beyond the family dynamic, she identified a positive correlation between an individual’s confidence in their respective government’s pandemic response, and their likelihood of complying with government recommendations and getting vaccinated. 

Access to vaccinations, however, varies widely depending on the country. Krishna Udayakumar works on public health initiatives with a lens on health equity. During the discussion, he emphasized how high-income countries must share their oversupply of vaccines. Distributing vaccines in low and middle-income countries through “vaccine diplomacy” would fill the gap between supply and demand. He recognizes that “beyond the science, it’s about reflecting on and sharing policy goals” to address the “most critical health challenges, especially in under-resourced settings.” Udayakumar especially values collaborative work with “colleagues across the disciplines… and with policy think tanks and advocacy organizations” that have allowed his team to expand the scope of their reach and better understand the vaccine marketplace.

This panel opened my eyes to the comprehensive public health initiatives at work to advance social justice and development during COVID-19. Reflecting on past policies and sharing clear goals is especially important, because as Udayakumar stated, “the post pandemic world is going to look different than the pre-pandemic world,” and we can’t solve new problems with old strategies.


Sasha Gerber is a sophomore majoring in public policy with a certificate in markets and management studies. She is involved in sociological research on campus and works as a student intern on the Sanford Communications team. She hopes to one day combine her passion for social justice with work in the Marketing and Communications field.