Lending Expertise to the Pandemic Crisis

When the COVID pandemic became real and present in California in early March, I was taken off guard like so many of us. My own research did not involve global health or influenza-like illnesses, but as an epidemiologist, I knew the scientific jargon about epidemics. I had been paying attention to what was going on in China, Italy, and Iran, but just peripherally. I had once hoped that the global public health system that had worked effectively to drastically control the SARS and MERS epidemics in the past would do so again. Unfortunately, many of those control measures had been defunded or weakened. It was becoming clear that our country was going to soon have to pay the heavy price already being paid elsewhere.

I began to feel a great deal of anxiety, because I knew that the pandemic control measures would exact a huge toll on many in the Southwest Los Angeles community where I live and on the marginalized communities with whom I do my work. This includes people living with HIV, people who use drugs, and people who are either in jail now or recently left jail. The closures of business and schools have wreaked the greatest havoc on the working poor — those considered essential, rarely can work from the safety of home and are often not protected on the job. Those not considered essential and have little savings to fall back on. Many don’t even qualify for unemployment because they worked off the grid or are undocumented. Those leaving jail often live on the streets or in group settings where COVID-19 prevention is difficult. Those in jail may be even worse off — close quarters, unclean surroundings — have huge potential for rapid spread.

Once I adjusted to the new realities of telecommuting while trying to keep my kids on track with their schoolwork, I found my purpose in service. I had no “official” COVID-19 role, but I had resources and expertise. Members of my team began to reach out to current and former study participants to answer questions about COVID-19 and link them to available resources. They also
offered my expertise to our community partners who ran residential facilities for substance abuse. I was invited on podcasts and a radio show to speak to segments of the African American
community of Los Angeles about the pandemic. I even joined my husband’s boxing podcast several times to answer questions and share advice about how people could prevent infection and what to do if they had symptoms.

I also joined two different task forces that are addressing the outsized impact of COVID-19 on racial/ethnic minority communities. We are collecting data, writing Op-Eds and thought pieces,
pushing policy makers, and developing new research.

My anxieties quickly shifted to busy and productive energy. I was using the tremendous gifts I have been blessed with through my education, my God-given intelligence, and the two institutions with which I work — David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. Given the enormity of the problem, none of it seems like enough,
but each day I ask God for direction and then do my best to follow it. I generally go to bed exhausted but fulfilled.

Dr. Nina Harawa ‘88 is a Professor-in-Residence with the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. She also has a faculty appointment at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science where she serves as faculty leader for the university’s Center for AIDS Research Education and Services (also known as Drew CARES). She works with community partners to develop and test effective, culturally relevant interventions for prevention, care, and treatment. In her free time she likes to cook and write, including an occasional blog found at “mykidseattheirveggies.wordpress.com.”

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June 23, 2020 (Originally published in Spring Vision 2020)