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Can Understanding Public Health During Covid-19 Revolutionise Our Future?

by Amber Naeem

“Public health” is a term used often in the media—but what exactly does it mean? In an exclusive interview with the inspirational Professor Arpana Verma, we manage to get the lowdown on why public health is so important and how it can directly affect you.

Can Understanding Public Health During Covid-19 Revolutionise Our Future? Amber Naeem, Artwork by Hanna Gwynn
Professor Arpana Verma

In a blink of an eye, normalcy was brutally wrenched from our grasp, leaving many of us confused, anxious, and wondering what had caused our society to fall apart so easily. The stock market plunged to its lowest in 100 years, planes were instantly grounded, and schools were forced to shut abruptly one seemingly mundane Friday afternoon. I remember eagerly watching the TV that day, excited that I wouldn’t have to go to school for the foreseeable future (not that the future was foreseeable); but that was a happiness that has since been replaced with fear and sadness at the reality of how the situation has affected my family and country.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to interview Professor Arpana Verma. The Head of the Division of Population Health, Health Services Research and Primary Care, a World Health Organisation expert, and the Director of Manchester Urban Collaboration on Health (MUCH), Professor Verma is one of the world’s leading public health specialists. As a group of young people keen for knowledge to empower our own decisions, we were curious to know more about what public health actually is, how it influences the government’s decisions, and what it means for the development of society.

Can Understanding Public Health During Covid-19 Revolutionise Our Future? Amber Naeem, Artwork by Hanna Gwynn

What is public health?

With an engaging and welcoming smile, Professor Verma first enlightened us as to what the often “difficult to define” public health sector means for us. “I’m obviously very biased,” she remarked before launching into her explanation. Public health, she said, effectively combines the science and art of clinical practice—i.e., how doctors actually treat us as individuals—together with the protection of the population, health promotion, and examination of behaviour change. It not only looks at how these factors affect the health of individuals, but at how the UK can adapt its healthcare and social care services to improve the population health as a whole.

The role of public health studies during the pandemic has been monumental. With the combined expertise of all universities, the NHS, and local authorities, the public health sector has come together during the Covid crisis to work with ordinary people to assess the impact on communities and how this can be mitigated in the future. While some of their current research has involved looking at infection prevention and control, they are also investigating how the environment—particularly the social and economic disparities in society—may influence how different communities are affected. Throughout Professor Verma’s explanation, there was a huge appreciation of the teamwork and the solidarity behind her workforce, which is something we can perhaps take away and echo through our own daily actions.

“You need both the quantitative and qualitative” was a phrase often repeated; that is, you need both data and real-world individual stories. This highlighted the importance of patient and public engagement in research to really understand population health and the factors that may influence it. There’s an intricate balance between the two and because of this, public health acts as a bridge between the politics and economics of the government and the statistics of the science advisory committee.

“This is an opportunity for real change.”

“We are facing the biggest public health emergency of all time,” Professor Verma said.

Over the past few months, the global pandemic and its impact on the UK has brought our health inequalities into sharp focus. While the greatest risk factor has shown to be age, there is a much larger risk for those living in socioeconomically deprived areas and of BAME ethnic origin. This begs the question: why? And, just as importantly, what can we do about it? In June, it was found that people of BAME backgrounds had between a 10% and 50% higher risk of death when compared to white British backgrounds. However, there’s a difference between merely mentioning the statistics and doing something to actively change them.

The pandemic has exposed the harsh realities of social inequalities in the UK, yet it has also given us a platform to vocalise our concerns and hopefully make a real difference. It has allowed us to focus on the politics of the situation and we must seize the opportunity, no matter our age or ethnicity, to address this situation.

Steps that all of us as members of public can take to make a change include:

  1. Vote and understand what government manifestos and politicians are truly talking about.
  2. Talk to politicians about their views. It is fundamental that young people feel empowered to do this, so contact your local MP and use the media to make a difference, especially for the people who don’t have a voice.

We went into this interview expecting to learn about public health in the abstract, but we came away with a sense of how we too are part of it and even more importantly, how we can affect it. We can help make a difference. YOU can make a difference.