Public health’s goal is the same it has always been: to save lives. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, public health professionals were vilified and attacked repeatedly as they worked to protect the public. 

“Public health should not be a controversial issue…Why the hell are so many people angry at us for trying to save their lives?” said keynote presenter Loretta Ross during Sunday’s APHA 2022 Opening General session. Ross is an associate professor at Smith College and an activist for women and human rights. 

“We know our democracy is at stake. We know that the COVID denial, the vaccine denial, the cruelty of those people is the point…We’ve got these purveyors of hate; we’ve got to get them out of power, where they can do the most harm,” Ross continued. Loretta Ross

Ross often talks about women’s reproductive rights, a topic of tremendous interest given the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade this year. But instead of diving in there, she waded into different waters — offering a new approach for handling pushback to public health from the public and partisan politicians. 

Ross, whose latest book, “Calling Out the Calling In Culture,” is scheduled to publish in 2023, said calling people out in an aggressive manner, as we have seen in popular culture in recent years, does very little to solve problems. 

Given the stark divisions in the U.S., a less confrontational approach is needed, she said. What if we called people in rather than calling them out?

“Calling in is holding people accountable, but you use love and respect, not because of who they are, but because of who you are,” Ross said. “Love and respect needs to be our public health strategy.”

She encouraged public health workers to lead with integrity and empathy — listen to differences; don’t talk down to people. In the end, the truth will win out. 

Those fighting against public health think they are fighting for human rights, she said, but they are wrong. “They’re fighting truth. They’re fighting evidence, like science. They’re fighting history…but most of all they are fighting time.” 

They won’t be able to roll back the clock; progress will continue forward. “They are so overmatched they don’t even realize it,” she said. 

A Boston perspective

During the Opening Session, Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, spoke of how the city has developed programs and policies to reduce health equity, systemic racism and homelessness. She said Boston recently moved 400 people who were homeless into permanent housing but that more still needs to be done.

Kaye BenderThe commission is currently tackling mental health as a public health crisis, recently hiring its first chief behavioral officer, Ojikutu said.

“We not only value where public health has been,” she said. “We value what it could be.”

Outgoing APHA President Kaye Bender, executive director of the Mississippi Public Health Association, has been traveling the country visiting health departments and APHA Affiliates. She said she was impressed by the dedication of the early professionals she met.

“It gave me optimism that our modernized public health system will be in good hands with these young people,” Bender said.

She ended her talk with advice to APHA members: “Be strong, be scientifically accurate, be kind and be proud that you are a member of the public health profession and the American Public Health Association.”

APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin talked about the successes APHA has had over its first 150 years. More successes are still to come, he said.

“We are here to stay, and our voice is to speak truth to power, promote science and speak out against disinformation,” Benjamin said. “Truth matters, facts matter and character counts.” 

Photos from top: Loretta Ross and Kaye Bender. Photos courtesy of EZ Event Photography.