From restoring trust in science and government, to prioritizing the marginalized communities hit hardest thus far, this team has a huge job ahead. The good news? They're ready.

By Sydney Haymond
Jan 21, 2021 @ 11:20 am
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BAW Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith
Credit: Courtesy Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith

Coming off of Wednesday's historic inauguration, where Joe Biden and Kamala Harris took their rightful place as President and Vice President of the United States, many Americans are breathing a sigh of relief as we move toward a new, and hopefully less chaotic, chapter in our country's history. But after the confetti settles, we must still acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead, chief among them the COVID-19 pandemic which is far from over. The Biden administration has already made it clear that navigating the country out of this pandemic and bringing relief to those suffering is priority number one. 

Two women featured on InStyle's Badass 50 list published earlier this month helped craft his plan, beginning long before he took office. Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the founding director of Yale's Equity Research and Innovation Center, and Dr. Céline Gounder, an epidemiologist (or "disease detective"), journalist, and documentary filmmaker, serve as prominent members on Biden's COVID advisory board back when he was still the president-elect.

"We want to restore trust in science, public health and government. This begins with transparency and two-way communication," Dr. Gounder told InStyle. Dr. Nunez-Smith, who co-chaired the Biden-Harris transition team's COVID advisory board, and will now head up a new team under the administration, echoed the sentiment, assuring that, "the incoming administration will be listening to scientists and experts when thinking about our nation's public health." These ideas serve as a stark contrast to the previous administration, which treated science as some kind of threat and consistently misled the American people when it came to the coronavirus.

In President Biden's action plan to combat the coronavirus, he commits to "a decisive public health response" that "eliminates all cost barriers" to testing, preventive care and treatment, and the vaccine — the rollout of which under Trump was disorganized to say the least. His plan also promises a "decisive economic response" to supply families with emergency paid leave and financial support to small businesses that are struggling as a result of the pandemic. "Make no mistake: this will require an immediate set of ambitious and progressive economic measures, and further decisive action to address the larger macro-economic shock from this outbreak," the website for Biden's plan says. 

"Before we communicate out, we need to hear from communities about their concerns and be sure we have a plan to address them," Dr. Gounder, of the pre-presidency advisory board, has to say adding that health equity is "a throughline" in all of the group's work to combat the pandemic. 

And that work is certainly being carried out now that the administration has begun. Dr. Nunez-Smith now chairs the Health Equity team of President Biden's COVID task force; the president is expected to announce the remaining members of the team today. "The journey to health, particularly for marginalized communities in our country, is one that deserves a wider lens," she says. As someone who grew up in an underserved area, Dr. Nunez-Smith understands firsthand the correlation between poor health in marginalized communities, and a lack of healthcare services in those communities. "Health is determined 20% by what we do in the clinical setting and over 60% by societal realities," she says, a reality that leaves vulnerable communities which lack proper access to healthcare even more at risk. 

So, how can we move forward and tackle this pandemic for all Americans? Dr. Nunez-Smith remains hopeful. "I'm finally letting myself imagine a new dawn, where we come together in some shared understandings of what systemic racism has done to our country, to our neighbors, to our friends, and to people that we don't know but should care about because of our shared humanity," she says. She implores that, "We want to get to this new normal, but I'm hoping when we do, we are actually on a path to true equity." In the end, Dr. Nunez-Smith will be fighting for everyone in her new role. "What I aspire to is to use my voice for the folks who aren't in the room. That's my responsibility and obligation — to make the invisible visible."