This has been a challenging week for public health and it seems appropriate that September is National Preparedness Month. You will see many references to this throughout the College and across many professional organizations and activities over the coming month. Preparedness is on everyone’s mind in every city in America now. What happened in Houston last week due to Hurricane Harvey is unprecedented and like many of you I have been struck speechless by pictures of the devastation and tragedy everywhere in that city. Remarkably, amidst all of the water and destruction, there have been wonderful stories and pictures of all the hard work and heroic efforts of police, rescue workers, and average residents of Houston. Two things in particular caught my attention:
- NPR interview with Dr. Usmair Shah, Executive Director of Harris County Public Health
Dr. Shah is the Exec Dir of Harris County Public Health in Texas. He has been interviewed on NPR and on TV numerous times during the past 10 days. He has been very clear on what needs to be done–the main immediate goal was to get residents of Houston out of harms way. He also clearly articulated the importance not only of physical health but also the unseen impact on the community’s mental health and well-being. Finally, he stressed that officials on the ground need to tell the truth and say what needs to be said. He stressed that people will understand if you can’t do something but they will not understand if you say you can and then you don’t. I hope officials from the center of Houston to Washington DC and Atlanta GA and back all hear that message. No one expects everything to be perfect and back to normal immediately but the residents of Houston need to know that their best interest is at the heart of all of the decisions being made—financial, health, infrastructure, political, economic, etc. Dr. Shah will be very busy in the coming weeks and months dealing with all the public health issues that come with a disaster like this. I think he is a man up to the challenge.
- Article on Slate.com by Jonathan Katz
Jonathan Katz visited CPH in November 2016 as the College’s first journalist in residence and gave a talk entitled “In the Public Interest: The Media and Public Health”. Jonathan is an award winning author and was the only full-time news reporter in Haiti at the time of the 2010 earthquake. He also later broke the story that UN soldiers were the likely cause of a post-earthquake cholera outbreak that killed thousands of Haitians. So Jonathan knows a thing or two about disasters and the public health response. Jonathan is undoubtedly a thought leader in the area of the media and public health and humanitarian efforts so I was eager to read this piece that I came upon on Slate.com. Basically he takes the American Red Cross to task for not effectively managing the donations that they receive for the purposes that they were meant for. I found the article made me a little nervous—this is the Red Cross we are talking about. They help people. They help lots of people in times of disaster and crisis. We can’t expect that everything that they do is perfect and without mistake. They mean well and that’s what is needed. But on further reflection, I think that Jonathan has a point. We cannot let the big name and reputation of the Red Cross or the government or any other organization for that matter just accept our money and have no accountability for how and where it was spent. Communication and transparency have to be paramount. We need to feel that our money was well spent and that it was spent by people and organizations who know what needs to be done and when in all sectors of a recovery. The Red Cross cannot do everything on it’s own. The money that people want to donate has to go across many different organizations and sectors to be most effectively used to rebuild Houston. It is the people living in Houston that are the only concern moving forward. Maybe we do need to think about who gets to decide what they need and when.
The residents, government, and institutions in Houston will spend the next days, months and even years very focused on their basic needs and how to rise up from this event. It is incumbent on the rest of us to make sure that we stay focused on what our government (at all levels) can do to help the people and city recover financially; on making sure that the public health needs of Houston are constantly on the radar; that people are not exploited by insurance companies and others in this time of greatest need; that people can get the services and aid that they need; and that there is accountability on the part of government and organizations of all types in how money is spent and what outcomes are achieved. No one expects everything to run perfectly or be fixed immediately, but the rest of us need to make sure that things are improving for Houston every day and not get distracted by the next thing to come along.