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How to teach global public health during a pandemic

Here is our learning-by-doing experience of teaching online courses about the COVID-19 response.

BY LARA GAUTIER & CATIA C. CONFORTINI | APR 22 2020

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the globe, we global public health scholars have a responsibility towards our students to inform and guide them in the right directions. However, the rapidly changing landscape of COVID-19 and the measures taken in our respective countries – Canada and the United States – make such a teaching exercise challenging – especially since many university campuses have closed and online courses have become the new normal (although with adverse effects on education equity).

It’s also time for public health scholars to think of new ways to engage students in critical thinking on this particular topic, especially given that the response to COVID-19 has been highly politicized from the onset (think of China’s initial censorship or the U.S.’s willful dismissal of the disease’s seriousness). This means not only teaching students the disease’s epidemiology , but also helping them make sense of the politics of this pandemic by looking at the health governance institutions responsible for coordinating the global response. It also involves highlighting the usefulness of social sciences in critically assessing the steps taken to contain the pandemic.

We can indeed learn so much from sociologists, anthropologists and international relations scholars on this front. Anthropologists can teach us how to listen to communities and analyze on-the-ground narratives about epidemics. Anthropological and sociological perspectives enable us to understand the development of fake news and the subsequent attempts at debunking them. And we can learn from international relations scholars about the power and influence driving global health policy-making, how viruses and diseases travel in globalized times, and what can be done about it.

Concretely, what forms can such global public health courses take? First, it is important to lay out the context – who are the key players in the field of global public health and what are their roles; how did the recent evolution towards private actors and public-private partnerships come to be? A flipped classroom approach is an interesting tool to achieve this: have students read the key literature on the topic (e.g., manuals on globalization and health – see link above) and summarize it by categories of actors or by chronological order.

Second, have students spend some time unravelling the roles of two key actors in the global response to COVID-19: the World Health Organization, of course, and the World Bank. After providing critical readings (or producing videos describing these actors), ask students specific questions (maybe in an online discussion forum): what’s their mandate? What tools can they use to enforce their actions to contain epidemics/pandemics (e.g., IHR)? How is there COVID-19 response reflecting their mandate? What kind of engagement do they have with the private sector (e.g., pandemic bonds)?

Third, to get more depth on key issues of interest, engage students in a role-play (in pairs or small groups). The role-play could take place in either asynchronous or synchronous mode (or both), and be in video (e.g., video recording of country’s statements, press releases, etc.) or written format (e.g., exchange of communication between a government representative and the WHO).

A few possible global health governance “hot” topics for the role-play include:

  • Coordinating the response between policy actors at multiple levels (global/regional/national/local): in-depth study of the steps taken to contain the epidemic by each level– and/or by identifying evolving phases of the response.
  • Data governance: who’s producing the data used by health authorities? What are the interests at stake in producing and publicizing the data? Is the reporting process transparent? How do you manage the risk of infodemics (an excess of data that becomes a hinderance rather than a solution to the problem)? (You could use the WHO’s website, media releases and social media to illustrate this phenomenon.)
  • Analyzing the discourse: how are different global actors featuring different narratives for the pandemic? How do these narratives (and omissions) reflect their interests? How do these discourses affect policy-making?
  • Reconfiguring global health governance: South-North cooperation (e.g., Chinese and Cuban delegations to Italy) and other evolutions to come.

You can provide role-play materials and contents in advance, or just point to useful online resources that students may tap into to create their scenarios. . If role-plays seem too daunting, the groups could instead take on a more traditional research role on specific countries’ responses and report their findings in class and via online discussions.

Based on this role-play activity, have them produce a collective brochure and/or a zine on the pandemic. Depending on their quality, these resources could be published widely online – a broader audience might be interested in knowing more about all this.

Remember that the idea is for students to understand the politics behind the COVID-19 response, using a playful pedagogical approach and through online learning. As for instructors, the take-home message is that your teaching style should remain adaptive – to students’ interests and to the constantly-evolving news about COVID-19 response. Teaching students about pandemics in the middle of one (or any other pressing global issue) means that we, as educators, should be sensitive to the needs of our students as they try to understand what is happening around them, and we should be creative in our pedagogical responses to such needs.

Lara Gautier is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of sociology at McGill University. Catia C. Confortini is an associate professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

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