Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles David Biello: It's now my great honor and privilege to introduce Dr. Georges Benjamin, who's the executive director of the American Public Health Association, who has a long and distinguished career, both as a medical professional and as a public health professional. Please give a warm welcome to Dr. Georges Benjamin. Georges Benjamin: Hey, David, how are you? DB: I am good, how are you, Dr. Benjamin? GB: I'm here. (Laughs) DB: Hanging in there. Good. GB: Hanging in. DB: We know that the theme of the moment is reopening, I would say. We just heard one possibility for that, but obviously, a lot of countries have already reopened in one form or another, and I believe, as of today, all 50 states here in the US have reopened in one form or another. How do we do that smartly, how do we do that safely? GB: Yeah, we really do need to reopen safely and carefully, and it means that we have not got to forget these public health measures that really brought down the curve to begin with. And that means thing such as covering up your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, wearing a mask, washing your hands, physically distancing yourself to the extent possible from others. Thinking about everything we do, you know, before we go to work in the morning, while we're at work. And being as careful as many of us have been in the last two months, as we go into the next three months, because this thing is not over. DB: Right. There is the chance of more waves, as Uri [Alon] mentioned. It seems like it's kind of incumbent on all of us then to take public health as kind of a second job. Is that right? GB: You know, I've been arguing a lot that now that everybody really knows what public health is, that everybody should always recognize that their second job is public health, whether you're picking up the garbage or working in a grocery store, or you are a bus driver, or you're, you know, like me, doing public health, a physician or a nurse, everybody needs to put the public health mantle into what they do each and every day. DB: What do you think -- So we're all public health professionals now, what do you think the new normal we might expect, as countries reopen? What is that going to look like, or what do you hope that looks like, as a public health professional? GB: If I could wave a magic wand, I would clearly recognize that people are going to be doing a lot more of the public health things, in terms of handwashing and thinking about what they do around safety when they go out in public. You know, it was not too long ago when you got in your car and you didn't put your seat belt on. Today we do it, and we don't think anything about it. Most of us don't smoke, because we know that that's bad for us. Most of us look both ways before we cross a street. Most of us, you know, do things in our house, that are -- fix trip hazards. So as we go forward with this outbreak, I'm hoping that people will pay a lot more attention to things that can cause us to get an infection. So you know, cleaning things, disinfecting things. More importantly, not coming to work if you're sick. I'm hoping that employers will put in paid sick leave for everybody, so people can stay home. Yeah, it's an additional cost, but I can tell you that we've now learned that the cost of not doing something like that is billions and billions and billions of dollars. Paid sick leave is pretty cheap when you do that. DB: Yeah, we are, I think, envious in the United States of all the countries that perhaps have a more all-encompassing health care system than we do. Would you agree that masks are kind of the symbol of adopting that "public health professional as a second job" mindset? GB: Well, you know, it's funny. Our colleagues in Asia have had a mask -- wearing masks as a culture for many, many years. And you know, we've always kind of chuckled at that. When I went overseas, I would always kind of chuckle when I saw people wearing masks. And of course, when this first started, you know, we only promoted masks for people that were infected or of course, health care workers, who we thought were in a higher-risk environment. But I think that wearing masks is probably going to be part of our culture. We've already seen it probably will not be part of our beach culture, although it probably should be for now. But I do think that we're going to see more and more people wearing masks in a variety of settings. And I think that makes sense. DB: Yeah, wear your mask to show that you care about others. And that you have this, kind of, public health spirit. So speaking of Asia, who has done well? Looking around the world, you've been doing this for a while and communicated with your peers, who has done well and what can we learn from those good examples? GB: Yeah, South Korea in many ways is the role model. You know, China actually, at the end of the day, did reasonably well. But the secret to all of those countries that have had less morbidity and mortality than we have, is they did lots of testing very early on, they did contact tracing and isolation and quarantine, which by the way, is the bedrock of public health practice. They did it early, they did a lot of it, and by the way, even though they're reopening their society, and they're beginning to see episodic surges, they then go back to those basic public health practices of testing, isolation, contact tracing and transparency to the public when they can, because it's important for the public to understand how many cases there are, where the disease is, if you're going to get compliance from the public. DB: So testing, contact tracing and isolation. That doesn't seem like rocket science, to use that old cliché. Why has that been hard for some countries to implement? What's holding us back, is it electronic medical records, is it some fancy doodad, or is it just maybe overconfidence, based on maybe the public health successes of the last 100 years? GB: You know, we are very much a pill society. We think there's a pill for everything. If we can't give you a pill for it, then we can give you surgery and fix it. You know, prevention works. And we have totally underinvested in prevention. We've totally underinvested in a strong, robust public health system. If you look at the fact that in the America today, you can very easily know what's coming off the shelf of a grocery store, Amazon knows everything there is to know about you, but your doctor does not have the same tools. At three o'clock in the morning, it's still very difficult to get a hold of your electrocardiogram, or your medical record, or your list of allergies if you can't tell the practitioner what you have. And we just haven't invested in robust systems. One of the interesting things about this outbreak is that it has created an environment in which we're now dependent on telemedicine, which has been around for several years, but we weren't quite into it. But now, it's probably going to be the new standard. DB: But it also seems -- So, obviously, those countries with an incredibly robust health care system, like Taiwan, have done well, but it seems like even countries that perhaps would be considered to have a less robust health care system, like a Ghana in Africa, have actually done well. What has been the, I guess, the secret sauce for those kinds of countries? GB: Yeah, it's still pretty early in some of their exposures, and hopefully, they might not have a wave that comes later, that's still a possibility, but at the end of the day, I think, to the extent you have done good, sound public health practices, all of the countries that have done well have implemented that. Now we're a big country, we're a complex country. And yes, we didn't get the testing right to begin with. But we should not repeat the mistakes that we had over the last three months, because we've still got several months to go. And now that we know what we did wrong, I'm encouraging us to do it right the next time. DB: That seems smart. GB: And the next time is tomorrow. DB: That's right. It's already started. I mean, it almost seems to me, if I can use this metaphor, that some of these countries already had the, kind of, antibodies in their system, because they had experience with maybe Ebola or the first SARS. Is that the key, previous exposure to these kind of public health crises? GB: Well, this is a very different virus. And while there may be some early evidence that MERS and SARS one, we may have some early protection from that, there's some early, early studies looking at that, that's not the solution. The secret sauce here is good, solid public health practice. That's the secret sauce here. We should not be looking for anything, any mysticism, or anyone to come save us with a special pill. This is all about good, solid public health practice, because, by the way, look, this one was a bad one, but it's not the last one. And so we need to prepare for the next really big one. We think this one was bad, imagine what would have happened had Ebola been aerosolized, or MERS had been aerosolized. You know, pick a TV movie. Even though this was a bad one, we still dodged a really, really bad one this time. DB: Yeah, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome is no joke, and we should be thankful that it doesn't spread more easily, like SARS-CoV. Is this, though -- So all these diseases are zoonotic, that means they jumped to us from the animals that are out there. Obviously, humanity is kind of encroaching on nature in an ever more, kind of, urgent way, whether that's climate change or going into the forests, what have you. Is this just the new normal, like, we should expect pandemics every so often? GB: Well, they do come periodically, so this is not, you know, the first pandemic, right? We've had several, 100 years ago, the 1918 influenza, SARS was a significant infection, even though it didn't get this bad, SARS one. And we had the avian flu, which was a challenge, and the swine flu. We had Zika. So no, we've had several new disease outbreaks. These emerging diseases happen a lot, and in many ways, we've been fortunate that we have been able to identify them early and contain them. But we're now in an environment where people can, by the way, make some of these things up. Now, this one did not happen, as best we can tell, it's not man-made. It did not probably come out of a leak in the lab. But we know that, when I was in school, to grow a bug, you had to be pretty sophisticated. That's not the case today. And we need to protect ourselves from both naturally occurring infections and from those that are created by humans. DB: Plus we have other, kind of, threat multipliers, like climate change, that make pandemics like this that much worse. GB: You know, I was saying climate change was the greatest threat human survival before this one. But this is rivaling climate change.