December 3, 2020

Listen In: Two Global Health Experts — one in TC — to Talk Pandemic

Northern Express interviews TC resident and dean emeritus of U of M's School of Public Health Dr. Kenneth Warner
By Patrick Sullivan | Sept. 12, 2020

This week, the Traverse City International Affairs Forum at Northwestern Michigan College opens its 27th season with a topic on everyone’s mind: global health crises.

The Wednesday, Sept. 16 event, “Grappling with Pandemics: Global Health Policy in the 21st Century,” brings Northern Michigan an expert with an impressive resume: Dr. Julio Frenk, the president of the University of Miami, former minister of health in Mexico, a former senior fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and former executive director of evidence and investigation at the World Health Organization.

Interviewing Frenk (above right) will be Kenneth Warner (above left), an IAF board member with a similarly impressive resume — and local ties.

Warner, a native of Washington, D.C., has been a resident of Northern Michigan since 2012. This November, he'll be on the ballot for Northwestern Michigan College’s board of trustees. Warner, an economist, has a deep background in health and academia. For 40 years, he's researched tobacco policy and served as the World Bank’s representative to negotiations on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the world’s first global health treaty. He served as the dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health until 2017, when he retired as the Avedis Donabedian Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Public Health and Dean Emeritus. 

Warner moved to Traverse City with his wife shortly after he went into semi-retirement eight years ago. His wife grew up in Northern Michigan, and today the couple lives on the land where she was raised, in a home overlooking East Grand Traverse Bay. Northern Express talked with Warner about the upcoming event and his perspective on COVID-19 from his home in Northern Michigan.

Northern Express: You were the dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and you had a career that was filled with accolades and honors. Did you see this pandemic coming?

Warner: I did not see this particular kind of pandemic coming. I think everybody who’s in public health appreciated the potential for something like this. I think with SARS, everybody was very much concerned that it would lead to some kind of global pandemic. But that was a time when the world got its act together and managed to put a hold to the disease before it could spread like this one has. So, I think it’s fair to say that there are a lot of people who focus on infectious disease epidemiology who would have said, “Yes, we did anticipate something like this.” But you know, it’s a little hard to say, since it’s been 100 years since we’ve had anything like this.

Express: How do you think the United State's response to the pandemic has been?

Warner: It’s been abysmal. You need to recognize the obvious — we have 4 percent of the world’s population, and we have between 20 and 25 percent of the deaths from the disease. And of course, we have, I think, a comparable fraction of the cases — maybe even a larger fraction of the cases. The cases are of course identified depending on how much testing is going on, which is both good and bad news for us. It means that because we do a relatively fair amount of testing, we’ve identified a number of cases. But we’re not testing nearly as well as many of the other countries, certainly including a lot of them in Asia, places like Korea and Singapore and Taiwan, which I believe has no active cases and maybe had about 20 altogether. New Zealand and Australia have done much better than any number of countries because they have tested a lot, and they've been quick to jump on it, and they do very well with the social isolating.

Unfortunately — and for reasons that I don’t think anybody really fully understands — this has become politicized in the United States, with President Trump’s supporters kind of following his lead about being, let’s say, ambivalent at best about wearing of masks, even though we know at this point that masks are a crucial feature of reducing the spread of the virus. I mean, if everybody wore their masks, you could cut the transmission rate by something like 70 to 80 percent.

Express: What precautions do you personally take to protect yourself from the virus, and how has your life changed since March?

Warner: Our life has changed dramatically in only one manner that really matters to me — we last saw our children and our grandchildren in person in January. Now, fortunately, we live in an era when you can talk with them and see them on Zoom or Facetime frequently, so that’s really helped. I’m cautiously optimistic that we will have a vaccine approved and ready for distribution sometime this spring. That’s just my guesstimate. I’m very worried, frankly, about the claim from CDC that there may be one out in early November. That strikes me, from everything I know, from all my expert colleagues in this area, as a purely political statement that really could discredit the whole development of a safe and effective vaccine. So, I’m very worried about that.

I think if we stick with the appropriate procedures for studying the vaccine, doing the testing that needs to be done, the trials, it is conceivable that we’ll be ready to get shots in our arm sometime this spring or maybe early summer or something of that nature. But for me and my wife, the biggest cost is the inability to be with our kids, because we’re retired. … What we are doing is, we’re not going out to restaurants. We have only had a few friends over out on our deck on East Bay on nice days, and we keep them on one side of the deck, and we’re sitting on the other side. We have not gathered in anybody’s home, and we’re basically taking all the precautions that one should be taking and can take. And we’re fortunate in that regard because we don't have small children in our household. We don’t have jobs that we have to go to physically. My wife goes to Costco during the senior citizen hour once every few weeks. We shop at Oryana where they will put things in your car for you, so you don’t have to go in the store. 

Express: How did you get involved with the International Affairs Forum?

Warner: I love the fact that here in this small town in northwestern Michigan, there’s a genuine interest in what’s going on around the world and in trying to be — at least intellectually and perhaps more personally — involved in what’s occurring around the world. I have focused my research on tobacco policy over, well, it’s a good 45 years now, and that has taken me to many countries around the world. I’ve worked in a large number of countries, and I’ve dealt with major issues on tobacco policy in other countries. I was the World Bank’s representative to negotiations on what was the world’s first global health treaty called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. I should add I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., so my hometown newspaper was the Washington Post, and my high school, which was a public high school, had the children of the Secretary of State. Teddy Kennedy, when he was a brand-new senator, came and spoke to us. And it was a place that was incredibly rich in dealing with national and international issues. So, I’m finding it was almost a godsend for me and for us, and that’s what got us first involved in it.

Express: I understand you know the upcoming IAF speaker, Dr. Julio Frenk.

Warner: I am friends with him. He got his medical degree in Mexico in 1979 and then he got his subsequent degrees at the University of Michigan. He got a Master of Public Health and then he did a joint Ph.D. between the School of Public Health and the Department of Sociology and Literature Science and the Arts [at U of M]. So, he was a student of ours — not of mine; I never actually taught him. He was in a different department, but he was a student in the school, and he was very good friends with some mutual friends that we had in Ann Arbor. And that’s how we met I met him originally. And then professionally, we’ve had lots of connections since then. I've done some things with the World Health Organization, where he was very high up in the pecking order. When I was dean at the School of Public Health in Michigan, he was the dean at the School of Public Health at Harvard, so we attended meetings twice a year together and shared ideas. I’d say we’ve been good friends and have been in touch pretty much all along for the last several decades now.

Express: How did he come to be an IAF speaker. 

Warner: [laughs] I asked him.

Express: What do you expect he’s going to talk about?

Warner: Well, first of all, it’s going to be an interview. We’re setting it up as an interview, and we want to talk and focus on the issue of how the world deals globally with a pandemic. I think most everybody is pretty familiar with the story in the U.S., and we’ll talk a little bit about that, but not much. What we’re really going to focus on is the global dimensions, what’s going on elsewhere in the world — what are the implications of it. You know, how long is this thing going to be around? What are other countries doing and with what implications? So, Sweden, for example. They’ve basically just chosen to ride it out and not worry too much about social distancing and the like — and they’re paying a huge price. If you look at the number of deaths, the number of cases relative to their population size, they’re doing terribly.

Express: I think it’s interesting and really timely that Dr. Frenk is president of the University of Miami, where they opened their campus about a month ago to students. He should have a lot of insight into how that’s going and what works and what doesn't when you re-open a school.

Warner: Yes. I don’t know how much we’re going to get into that. My suspicion is that when we get to the Q and A, there will be some questions about that. I can assure you — not from having spoken with him but having spoken with people at the University of Michigan and a couple of other universities where I have close colleagues — this is just unknown territory for everybody. And there are genuine challenges, some of which are purely financial. I think a lot of universities — not the major universities but a lot of universities and colleges — are going to be in danger of going under because of the financial implications of students not signing up or not paying the tuition or whathaveyou. Plus, all the other income that’s associated with the students being on campus — the housing and the food and everything else associated with it. I just know that nobody knows exactly how this is gonna play out.

Express: How do you think NMC is doing with its reopening plans?

Warner: So far, from what I can see, I believe they're doing a really smart job of it. There obviously are areas where they have to do in-person education. But I think they’re trying to focus more on distance learning where it is possible. And my understanding is that they’re actually doing pretty good in terms of enrollment. I think one reason for it, ironically perhaps, is that the four-year colleges and universities that are going to be doing distance learning, a lot of the students can come here and do the first two years at much lower expense, and they’re not missing out on the on-campus experience they would have had otherwise.

Express: How do you rate the school’s precautions against the spread of the virus?

Warner: I think they're being very good about that, from what I understand. You know, so much of the issue of precautions about the virus is what are the rules, and then how are they followed? So, one of the things that’s of great concern is that a number of universities are planning lots of testing — testing students, faculty, and staff with regularity. But then all of a sudden, the students come back to campus, and look at the partying that they’re doing. There’s not much you can do by way of regulation with off-campus partying. And that's how things are going to spread.

*This interview was edited and condensed for space and clarity.

Tune in to the Global Perspective
Attend the event

The International Affairs Forum opens its 2020-2021 season Wednesday, Sept. 16, with a live interview of Dr. Julio Frank conducted by Dr. Kenneth Warner. The event — “Grappling with Pandemics: Global Health Policy in the 21st Century" — is virtual and will take place at 5pm. 

To register, visit the IAF’s website at www.tciaf.com.

The event is “pay what you can” for non-members, and the suggested donation $10. 

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