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Creating a Smarter, More Equitable COVID Response

August 19/2020

University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health launches the Institute for Pandemics

Governments and world bodies typically struggle to respond quickly to emerging health threats, bogged down by bureaucratic and political obstacles and rising public mistrust of authority. If we are to facilitate a more agile response, universities must take a larger role in shaping the world’s response to pandemics.

The University of Toronto is responding immediately to this need by ramping up pandemic research and training public health professionals who can move quickly to implement evidence-based plans to prevent and control new infectious diseases. Building on a century of engagement with public health, the Dalla Lana School of Health (DLSPH) has launched the Institute for Pandemics to help the world prepare better, fight smarter, and recover faster from crises caused by communicable diseases.

DLSPH Dean Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown

DLSPH Dean Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown

“COVID-19 has exposed the limits of government and world bodies in detecting and responding quickly to emerging global disease threats,” says Prof. Steini Brown, founding director of the Institute and DLSPH Dean. “Universities have the range of expertise, the freedom to move quickly, the credibility of political neutrality – and a duty to work closely with governments and other institutions to effectively respond.”

The Institute is being launched with a generous $1 million gift from the Toronto-based Vohra Miller Foundation, which allows DLSPH to attract experts in infectious disease modelling and to immediately begin training a new generation of pandemic-ready public health professionals.

“The strength that DLSPH brings to this battle is the exceptional intersectionality built from the ground up,” says Foundation co-director Sabina Vohra-Miller. “The Institute for Pandemics takes a holistic view of the pandemic, focusing not just on the current situation, but also on resilience and recovery, using a health equity lens as a key driver. The effects of the pandemic, especially the economic and social effects, will be seen for years to come. We need to develop the road map for recovery, ensuring we don’t leave anyone behind.”

Sabina Zohra-Miller

Sabina Vohra-Miller

The pandemic has worsened inequality between rich and poor nations, and created new fault lines of privilege among those who can flee from cities, work remotely, and tolerate precarious employment. The Institute is committed to addressing these inequities by studying pandemic causes, resilience and recovery from an equity lens; drawing on expertise in epidemiology, environmental health, economics, bioethics, urban planning, health systems and policy, Indigenous ways of knowing, Black and migrant health, and the social determinants of health.

“The complexity of pandemics in our interconnected world calls for solutions that don’t live in silos, or stop at the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines,” says Prof. Christine Allen, U of T’s Associate Vice-President and Vice-Provost, Strategic Initiatives. “We are committed to creating new expertise that sits at the boundaries of public health, social science, medicine, geography, environmental health and equity.”

The Institute will build up the Canadian capacity to model infectious disease – a crucial need in a country with few experts trained to model an event as complex as a pandemic. But expertise in a vacuum has little effect, as the American and British experience shows. Part of the problem, say Institute leaders, is that academic researchers, government workers and political leaders often fail to communicate well with each other. Academics can move quickly to study an aspect of the problem, such as mask effectiveness or school transmissions, but government and political leaders must overcome many necessary hurdles if they are to respond quickly to new information. That’s why the Institute is strongly focussed on training the public health workforce – present and future – in the elements of pandemic preparedness, resilience and recovery through new courses and concentrations, and continuing professional education.

“Having folks who can move in both worlds and speak both languages can be incredibly useful,” says Prof. David Fisman, an infectious disease physician and former Ontario public health official whose COVID modelling has been used extensively by the province. “We need people in government who know infectious diseases and know how to use the information they’re given to create change. I remember how terrible the disconnect between science and government was during the SARS pandemic. We’re in a much better place than we were, but we’ve got a ways to go.”

Recognizing that distinctions between human, environmental and animal health are counterproductive, the Institute takes a “one world” approach to its research and training. And all Institute education and research will emphasize translating evidence, data and science into language that is accessible to the public and actionable for decision-makers.

“Academic researchers and educators must do more to help governments and world bodies understand and communicate the risks that a chosen course of action may have on health, the economy, the environment and health systems,” says Prof. Brown. “The world needs leadership from independent experts, informed by an ethical and equitable framework, to guide us through the current pandemic and others that inevitably will come.”

As the University works to address major public health challenges such as pandemics, “the support of our community plays a critically important role.” says David Palmer, Vice President, Advancement. “The impact COVID-19 has had on people’s lives has made it abundantly clear that an institute dedicated to helping us prepare for, respond to and recover from global health emergencies is an urgent need and I thank the Vohra Miller Foundation for recognizing that there is no better place for this institute than the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.”

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