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‘All of This Is Going to Change Us’: Two Deans on the State of COVID-19

Leaders of UCLA's Public Health and Oublic Affairs schools launch Luskin Summit 2020

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Date: 
Friday, April 24, 2020

By Mary Braswell

The opening session of the 2020 UCLA Luskin Summit drew a far-flung virtual audience seeking authoritative, research-based information about the questions on everyone’s mind: What are the prospects of containing COVID-19? When and how should social distancing restrictions be relaxed? What have we learned from this shared global ordeal?

Two UCLA deans, Ron Brookmeyer of the Fielding School of Public Health and Gary Segura of the Luskin School of Public Affairs, drew on their expertise about the pandemic’s health and policy implications at the April 22 event, the first of at least a dozen online sessions that will be offered by the Luskin School in April, May and June.

“COVID has done us one favor,” Segura said. “It’s allowed us to see things more clearly than we did before the crisis.”

In terms of slowing the spread of coronavirus, Brookmeyer said, “The current lockdown has bought ourselves some time. The question is, are we making the best use of this time?”

The insights shared by Segura and Brookmeyer came as UCLA Luskin launched the Summit’s second year, wrapping up the School’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Moving from an on-campus location to an online platform in response to the coronavirus’ spread widened the audience for the opening session. More than 400 people watched via Zoom and Facebook Live, from Southern California to New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Houston and Myanmar.

Viewers were invited to pose questions to the deans, whose conversation was moderated by Adrienne Alpert, host of ABC7’s public affairs program Eyewitness Newsmakers. Some asked about prospects for lifting orders to limit social contact.

Brookmeyer called for caution. “If we don’t have the necessary public health infrastructure in place, this thing will just explode again,” said the dean, who has conducted extensive research into the arc of illness and epidemic around the world.

He explained that different models make starkly different predictions about the virus’ march and described the protracted process of testing, manufacturing and administering an effective vaccine — a process Brookmeyer said is bound to take longer than the 12 to 18 months some are estimating.

“Without a vaccine, we may need intermittent periods of physical distancing to avoid overloading the health care facilities,” he said. “If we suppress this first wave, do we have the public health infrastructure in place to contain future waves?”

The eventual relaxation of social distancing restrictions should be gradual, strategic and nuanced, he said, predicting that wearing masks, sanitizing surfaces and closely monitoring the most vulnerable populations will be necessary for some time.

“All of this is going to change us, and it’s not completely clear how,” Brookmeyer said.

“The challenges, and particularly the inequities, are going to be profound,” Segura concurred.

Latino households are particularly hard hit by the coronavirus’ economic impact, he said, citing a nationwide survey. While proposals to institute relief for those unable to pay their rent or mortgage are promising, the number of homeless is bound to rise by the end of the crisis. And the need for computers and broadband access in homes — where K-12 students are now learning remotely — has turned public education into a “luxury good,” Segura said.

Still, both deans found cause for optimism.

Brookmeyer cited the public’s new appreciation for the people and institutions that guard the nation’s health. “The public health infrastructure had been really underfunded, and I think calling attention to this will help us in preparing for future public health emergencies,” he said.

Segura pointed out that “COVID is changing our lives in a million ways,” and not all of them are bad.

One example: “Has anyone noticed the air in Los Angeles? It’s crystal clear,” he said. “Do we want to go back to sitting on the 405 [freeway] for an hour?”

By necessity, telecommuting has been tested across sectors in the past few months, Segura noted. Some employers have found new ways to measure productivity, and some workers have found valuable uses for time once spent commuting.

“These are things that we’ve become used to and that we’ve internalized into our COVID quarantine lives. And I’m not so sure we’re going to be all that happy to give them up,” he said.

“COVID has actually revealed some things that we can do better to improve our quality of life.”