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The Promise of Spring 2021

Posted on May 26, 2021
Mother robin feeding her babies

By Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH

It is hard to believe that we are almost in June of 2021 and wrapping up an academic year like no other: a year in which faculty, staff and students valiantly continued to connect and engage remotely, balancing work, family, and everything going on in the world around us. Last fall we began the academic year tired and uncertain about what awaited us. We held classes, talks, meetings, and even celebrations peering into our computers. We grew accustomed to seeing ourselves perpetually on-screen and figured out ways to arrange our homes and our lives to accommodate this new way of being, of interacting, of working. Some set up fancy new zoom backgrounds, others (like me) gave up on backgrounds allowing us to peer into kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms.

In the fall of 2020 COVID vaccines were still a big question mark. When would they be reviewed and approved? How quickly would they become available? We proposed detailed plans for their equitable distribution that later fell by the wayside. The pandemic was raging in the U.S. and Europe but had for the most part apparently (and somewhat miraculously) been slower to spread to the southern hemisphere (something that has dramatically changed today). There were still lingering debates about the correct balance of lockdowns and contact-tracing, on whether transmission was by droplets or aerosols, on the consequences of allowing indoor dining, on who should be regularly tested and how often, and on the relative merits of rapid antigen testing or polymerase chain reaction testing.

Today, many things are different. As we prepare for graduation, we begin to imagine how the pandemic might end. In the U.S. many of us have been vaccinated and our city is slowly starting to open up. Some of us have been able to begin to get together with family and friends after a long long time. We have obtained a new appreciation for what it means to be together. I have been so happy to see a few of you at Nesbitt every now and then, even masked and from a distance. I can’t wait until we are together in person again this fall.

There is of course still a long way to go and for much of the world (India, South America, among others) the pandemic rages like never before. Despite all the problems we have faced (even here in the rich U.S.) we can’t forget how fortunate we are to live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. There is much to be done as we recover from the pandemic. Most importantly, we must work to finally address the longstanding systemic inequality that plagues our societies which the pandemic has made so starkly visible. We saw vividly illustrated once again the deadly consequences of racism and white supremacy for health not just in the U.S. but all over the world.

And yet somehow, despite the many challenges ahead, spring can bring a sense of renewal and opportunity.  This month, you will read about the hopeful launch of the Ubuntu Center on Racism, Global Movements and Population Health Equity. You will learn about exciting plans for graduation and the two wonderful speakers who will join us for the University-wide Commencement at Citizens Bank Park, Dr. Elijah Anderson and for our School’s Virtual Ceremony, Dr. Kenneth Olden. I look forward to seeing you all there!

This past week we discovered a robin’s nest with three beautiful robin babies in our patio not too far from our kitchen door. We watched in wonder as the babies grew, demanded food (insistently), and were fed with the greatest dedication by their parents again and again. We were thrilled to see the babies leave the nest, hop around and stumble across our patio, trying out their wings in short awkward flutters. Then we watched them perch on low branches, then gradually move up just a bit higher. And a few days ago, they were gone…off to a new beginning. It was enthralling and joyful, something I looked forward to every morning and evening. I hope that this spring we can rejoice in the small things we can start to do together, in the small steps (and hopefully bigger steps too!) we can take to create a better world where everyone can live and thrive. This is after all what public health is about.