institute talk

Dr. Ashish Jha, right, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, speaks during a discussion on public health Tuesday at the Aspen Institute. He was joined by Amna Nawaz, left, senior national correspondent for PBS NewsHour.

“The State of Public Health in a Post-Pandemic World” was the topic of discussion Tuesday in the Greenwald Pavilion of the Aspen Institute. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University and former Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, fielded questions from Amna Nawaz, senior national correspondent and primary substitute anchor for PBS NewsHour.

The hour-long discussion between Jha and Nawaz was the first in-person public event of the Aspen Institute’s “Summer in Aspen” event series, which includes virtual, in-person and hybrid programming from June-September.

Seated centerstage in front of a crowd composed of mostly elderly people, Nawaz asked Jha relevant questions concerning vaccine mandates, our public health system’s infrastructure, the impact of misinformation, the mental health crisis and deep issues that have come to the surface throughout the pandemic, such as systemic racism.

Jha said one-third of the American population is not vaccinated and believes this is due to a combination of accessibility issues, strategically-designed misinformation targeted toward certain groups and a lack of trust in the United States health system, particularly from communities of color.

He touched on the global gaps in vaccination rates, emphasizing that only 3% of Africa’s population is vaccinated. With variants spreading and existing hesitancies, Jha said he can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel but that institutions and businesses requiring vaccine mandates is a hopeful step.

Jha extended his arms to the crowd and pointed out how everyone had to have been fully vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19 before entering the event that afternoon.

“If you want to be able to have gatherings like this one today, you have to mandate,” he said.

The conversation flowed efficiently, and the audience appeared to be engaged. A great number of hands shot up when Nawaz opened the floor for questions near the end.

One audience member stood from his seat and thanked Jha for his commitment to being a source of accurate and relevant information during the pandemic. The statement of praise was followed by a loud applause.

Nawaz closed the conversation by asking Jha why he frequently referred to the word “hopeful” throughout the talk. In response, Jha said that although we’re not yet in a post-pandemic world, he feels hopeful about the way society will change coming out of it, bringing up the progression of science, increased global collaboration and some of the systemic issues and gaps the pandemic has revealed. 

“Pandemics change societies,” Jha said. “How they change societies is up to us.”

The event, along with a large portion of the summer programming, was organized by Aspen Community Programs, a sector of the Institute that offers affordable opportunities and events for locals and tourists year round.

“ACP serves as the first door people come through to access the Institute,” said Jillian Scott, senior program manager for ACP.

While ACP hosts smaller events and more local-based programming throughout fall, winter and spring, the summer season is showtime for ACP. Through the Hurst Lecture Series, McCloskey Speaker Series and the Murdock Mind, Body, Spirit Series, ACP presents big events featuring a lineup of high-profile speakers, open-ended conversations and diverse topics of discourse.

“Because the Aspen Institute is a nonpartisan organization, we focus on offering a wide range of topics, of which include several different voices from each side of a particular issue,” Scott said. “Creating variety for our audience is really important to us at ACP and the Institute.”

Last summer, the event series was virtual and free of cost. ACP decided to extend that free price to the public this year, as well as continue to offer a virtual element for every event with its YouTube livestream.

“Our virtual programming last year allowed us to reach a wider, national audience through online accessibility,” Scott said. “It changed the scope of how we think about who our audience is.”

Prior to COVID-19, summer series event tickets were $25.

“Summer in Aspen” marks the Aspen Institute’s first return to physical gatherings since the start of COVID-19, as stated in a press release.

Scott looks forward to more of the upcoming in-person events. She is especially excited for the talk on Friday, “Why Politics Are Getting in the Way of Having Real Discourse,” which will feature Will Hurd, former U.S. representative for Texas’s 23rd congressional district, and David Sanger, Pulitzer-winning journalist and chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. This event will take place at the Greenwald Pavilion at 5 p.m.

Scott mentioned another interesting speaker event with Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, adjunct associate professor of psychology and director of the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College of Columbia University, which is set for July 28 at the pavilion. Horowitz will discuss her new book, “Our Dogs, Ourselves,” diving into what dogs teach us about ourselves.

According to Scott, the registration response for upcoming events has been strong so far, and although they’ve implemented socially-distanced seating, there is still plenty of room for people to attend in-person.

“After a challenging year, the need to bring people together has never been stronger,” Aspen Institute President/CEO Dan Porterfield said in a statement. “We’re proud to be re-starting our summer programming in Aspen and connecting with communities across the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.”