President Burwell speaks at Council on Foreign Relations virtual report launch

As co-chair of independent task force, Burwell discusses report on COVID-19 and pandemic preparedness

President Burwell speaks at Council on Foreign Relations virtual report launch
Sylvia Burwell speaks at a Council on Foreign Relations event on Oct. 8.

American University President Sylvia Burwell spoke at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations on Oct. 8 to discuss a recent report on how to improve pandemic preparedness.

The panel consisted of co-chairs of the council's Independent Task Force, Burwell and Frances Fragos Townsend, and report authors Thomas J. Bollyky and Stewart M. Patrick. NPR host Lulu Garcia-Navarro moderated the discussion. Regarding the content of the report, they analyzed the U.S. and global response to the coronavirus and recommended how missteps in the response can be avoided if another pandemic occurs.

“The information from the report is something that we believe is relevant in terms of pandemic preparedness for the future, but it's important for now as we are continuing in the pandemic that we're in,” Burwell said. 

Before the floor was opened for audience questions, the panel answered questions asked by Garcia-Navarro. Burwell drew on findings from the report as well as her experience as U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services under the Obama administration during the Ebola outbreak. 

When asked about the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on vulnerable groups, including people of color and essential workers, Burwell emphasized the importance of immediate relief through policy and accurate information dissemination, but also the need for long-term solutions.

“We need to focus on why it is that there are more of the preexisting conditions that make this disease worse in those populations,” Burwell said. 

People of color are also more likely to face racial discrimination, be uninsured and be essential workers, further putting them at risk of contracting the virus and having a negative health outcome, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Regarding the CDC, Burwell reflected on her positive experiences working with the organization, and echoed sentiments in the report that called for an independent review of the CDC. 

“What we have to do is assess what happened, understand it and rebuild that confidence,” Burwell said.

Burwell also discussed the roles of private and public funding in combating pandemics, focusing on the need for cooperation between the private sector, philanthropy and governments.

Speaking about how to increase individual responsibility in a pandemic Burwell said, “It is about basic public health communication and connecting the actions with the outcomes and making sure that people have the information.”

Recurring themes throughout the discussion were the need for cooperation, coordination and transparency.

“A pandemic is fought at the government level, at the state level, at the local level, and as we all know as citizens in the middle of this, we all need to do our part,” Burwell said. 

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