In September of 2010, the Network for Public Health Law launched as a national initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with the objective to provide legal capacity support to public health agencies around the country. Ten years later, the Network has reached tens of thousands in the public health workforce — as well as health care providers, policymakers, advocates, educators and researchers — with much-needed legal technical assistance, resources and training.
“In 2010, the same year that the Network launched, the ACA was enacted and the nation took a critical step toward improving access to health care. Now, ten years later and in the wake of the pandemic, we know there is still much to be done and that we must build not only on the advances made by the ACA, but strategize and argue for systemic change on multiple levels.”
Few could have predicted then, that a decade later the Network’s support would become essential to the public health community’s efforts to address the most devastating viral epidemic in the nation’s history. In early February of 2020, when there were only five cases of coronavirus identified in the United States, we conducted our first webinar on legal emergency preparedness and response. Since then we have worked tirelessly to provide real-time information and direct guidance to those working on measures to mitigate harm from the pandemic.
Tragically, at a time when the nation needed the expertise of public health professionals more than ever before, these emergency measures were increasingly politicized and public health professionals themselves became targets as widespread disinformation added to the dangers of the pandemic. We were distressed to hear from front line public health officials and practitioners who were harassed, threatened and sued for their efforts. Hundreds have left the field. The practice of public health itself also came under fire. Even as the numbers of infection and deaths from the pandemic reached staggering levels, lawmakers in 24 states drafted legislation to weaken public health powers. Historically underfunded and under-resourced, public health agencies are facing extraordinary challenges in their important work.
Against this backdrop, a national racial reckoning emerged as communities across the country witnessed repeated, fatal incidents of police brutality against Black people. This, combined with the extent in which Black people were disparately impacted by COVID-19, was an awakening for many Americans to the devastating consequences of structural racism, where laws and policies create and maintain barriers to equal justice, power, health, and economic advancement for people of color. Those in public health who have for years called for racism to be declared a public health emergency saw many more join their ranks.
The pandemic also exacerbated existing barriers to voting and election participation, making it more difficult for people across the country to exercise their right to vote in the 2020 elections. Local and state agencies faced numerous challenges in their work to protect our voting systems and ensure that everyone can safely and securely vote.
Throughout the turmoil and in spite of significant obstacles, the public health workforce remained steadfast in our efforts to protect the health of our communities. In the ten years since the launch of the Network, we have worked hand-in-hand with public health agencies and their partners and we know it is this dedication that keeps us strong, despite unprecedented challenges.
With the announcements of approved vaccines for COVID-19 at the end of 2020, we saw hope on the horizon for recovery. We have heard from so many of you who see opportunities to prioritize equity and improve the systems and conditions that impact the health of our communities as we begin the work to rebuild.
In 2010, the same year that the Network launched, the ACA was enacted and the nation took a critical step toward improving access to health care. Now, ten years later and in the wake of the pandemic, we know there is still much to be done and that we must build not only on the advances made by the ACA, but strategize and argue for systemic change on multiple levels.
We also need to increase our efforts in fighting disinformation – the devastating consequences of which can be seen in the continuing toll of COVID-19 in communities, and with the recent unprecedented attack on the Capitol.
We recognize the difficult work ahead of us in 2021 and are proud to continue our support of public health. In this year of rebuilding, we will monitor law and policy changes to find solutions to help advance your efforts in equitable recovery on many fronts, including access to health and mental health services and vaccinations, safe and secure housing, food security, substance use and harm reduction, public health and community data sharing, and climate resiliency.
We will also assess declarations of racism as a public health emergency to find opportunities to improve health outcomes for communities of color and immigrant communities. We are hopeful, and look forward to sharing our collective knowledge, strategies and best practices with many of you at the 2021 Public Health Law Conference in Baltimore in September.
Throughout this year, we will be sharing highlights from the past decade to celebrate what we’ve achieved with our friends and colleagues in public health. If you would like to share a memory or tell us what you value most about the Network, please do so here.
With you, we have seen ten years of collaboration, ten years of trust, ten years of impact. Thanks to you, we are ten years strong.
Donna E. Levin
The Network for Public Health Law