If somebody had told us last year that our public health study at Yale University would end abruptly due to a global viral pandemic, potentially the biggest public health crisis of our generation, it would have been hard to believe. What was one of the most exciting and stimulating years of our lives, came to an abrupt halt in the last few weeks. Students were told to leave campus, classes were moved online, and university life, as we knew it, was suddenly over.

For those of us due to graduate this summer, this has not been an easy transition. In the midst of managing our anxiety for loved ones, the restrictions on our movements and lifestyles and the very real risk of getting the virus, there is a profound sadness for how our academic year and experiences have ended. And a growing frustration of how best to help while trying to keep our grades up enough to finish our degrees.

We know in comparison to people losing jobs, houses, or tragically even their lives, having your degree cut short is not the greatest hardship. But for the hundreds of thousands of students adjusting to life online, Zoom classes and the loss of their peers, life has changed swiftly and definitively. University can play many different roles in a student’s life. For some, it is a safe haven, a place to foster ideas and attitudes and a place where they might have felt more themselves. It is a time to explore interests and passions. For many, it is a time where the structure of lectures and routine provides a sense of security and peace they may have never experienced before. And for those ending their time at university and completing their studies now from a distance, the grief of losing their home, friends and security and this bubble so quickly is very real.

As public health students, we feel both privileged and pressured to use our education and resources in any way we can to help at this time, whether that be research, clinical work, advocacy or activism. Yale School of Public Health has encouraged students to volunteer both on the front line and behind the scenes. Students are involved in contact tracing, signing petitions, acquiring medical equipment and PPE and clinical research. Global health students should be best placed to dive head-first into this crisis. But sadly, many feel woefully underprepared to address our this global health challenge domestically.

The issue for many programs is that the U.S. is often excluded from the global health conversation — except when we mention our roles in aid and support. We have spent an unimaginable amount of time sitting in global health lectures across the country and hearing glamorous stories about the U.S.’s effort in countries X, Y and Z. It automatically places the U.S. at the center of the global health field. Through this type of education, the global health standard suddenly becomes our perception and practice of health and medicine.

Because of this unilateral approach towards a multilateral concept, the U.S. has failed to learn from other countries. Other global health contributors such as the EU, BRICS, and South-South Cooperation have been largely ignored. The failure to honor other key players in global health instills the “savior complex.” Such psychology is dangerous as it undermines local forces, reduces the empowerment, and corrodes collaborations. All of these consequences exacerbate the “us vs them” mentality, which creates a vicious cycle that begins with this unilateral learning approach.

The problem of not including the U.S. in global health might not be obvious in peaceful times, but COVID-19 has taken away the veil and exposed the failure. Now, when the U.S. is facing a truly global health emergency, we are at a loss of what to do.

The sudden end to life on campus will be challenging for all students, especially those due to graduate in summer. Universities have a responsibility to be sensitive to these challenging times and adopt appropriate technology and policies.

But a longer-term challenge remains for the future of public health education. This crisis has brought into focus the dangerous gap in global health education. COVID-19 presents an important opportunity to inform higher education institutions to think about a curricular redesign to combat the current drawbacks of global health teaching and elicit a cultural shift in public health and global health education.

Dr. Judith McCartney is a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholar at the Yale School of Public Health. Dr. Jon Zhou is pharmacist and Master of Public Health/Global Health candidate at the Yale School of Public Health. 

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