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April 26, 2024

How to End a Pandemic Initiative Features Responders’ Perspectives in Pandemic Response

Convened by the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, the How to End a Pandemic initiative gathers and makes available to the public the experiences of epidemic experts and humanitarian response workers so that we can learn how to make epidemic, disaster, and humanitarian response faster, safer, and more humane.

The Global Health Institute interviewed Sharon Abramowitz, principal investigator of the How to End a Pandemic initiative, and Kayleigh Coppinger (C’23, G’24), a fall 2023 GHI student fellow who collaborated on the initiative. In the interview, Abramowitz reflects on the impetus for the project, its interdisciplinary approach, and the contributions Georgetown students bring to the project’s podcast, while Coppinger shares lessons learned from her experience working on the project.

From left to right: Sharon Abramowitz and Kayleigh Coppinger (C’23, G’24)
From left to right: Sharon Abramowitz and Kayleigh Coppinger (C’23, G’24)

A Conversation with Sharon Abramowitz

Could you share what inspired the inception of the How to End a Pandemic initiative?

Rebecca Katz, professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security, and I decided to collaborate on this project when I joined Georgetown in 2022. Professor Katz led a course-based initiative to interview people involved in the COVID-19 response in 2021, and I led an initiative, the Ebola 100 Project, to capture the experiences of epidemic responders during the West Africa Ebola Outbreak of 2014-2015. We immediately saw a need to create a long-term, durable, publicly accessible archive of interviews on pandemic response experiences that could inform policy and decision-making for future disease outbreaks. The project is now an interdisciplinary initiative with several co-sponsors, including Georgetown’s Medical Humanities Initiative, the Department of History, Earth Commons, Office of Community Engagement, and the Digital Georgetown Initiative at GU Libraries.

Can you expand on the project’s interdisciplinary approach?

Last year, we shared our existing transcripts with faculty involved in the Georgetown Humanities Initiative for student learning and for producing innovative humanities work. This semester, the Medical Humanities Initiative is sponsoring a one-credit course where students learn to use oral history methodologies, social science analysis frameworks, and journalistic approaches to study epidemic response experiences. Georgetown’s Office of Community Engagement has played a pivotal role in connecting How to End a Pandemic students with medical centers in the greater District of Columbia area to facilitate interviews with health care professionals. The Global Health Institute has supported student research assistants to conduct primary research and archival activities with existing oral history evidence. We have also collaborated closely with the GU Libraries to build a permanent, open-access digital home for these archives through the Digital Georgetown platform.

Through this project, we are working at the forefront of interdisciplinary research to understand, reveal, and improve how the United States and the world respond to emergent threats. We believe that the lessons that we are learning can have interdisciplinary reach and impact.

One of the key initiatives within the broader project is the How to End a Pandemic podcast. In what ways does the podcast contribute to pandemic preparedness and response?

The How to End a Pandemic podcast fills a crucial role by giving people the space, time, and audience to share their experiences of pandemic response. We learned about guests’ doubts, mistakes, near-misses, and miscalculations, as well as responders’ perspectives on what has changed and what remains the same from one disease outbreak to another. And, perhaps most importantly, we learn about what drives people to continue to improve public health, institutions, and policy, even when the odds are stacked against them.

What did it mean for you to be a faculty mentor in the Global Health Institute’s student fellowship program?

Serving as a faculty mentor in GHI’s student fellows program was an incredible experience. The students involved with the program have been smart, hard-working, professional, and insightful. During their work with the How to End a Pandemic project, each student kept lab journals where they documented their key insights from each interview. Their insights have fed directly into policy recommendations for public and private sector institutions who have sought to learn more about pandemic response from the project.

A Conversation with Kayleigh Coppinger

As a fall 2023 GHI student fellow, you were heavily engaged in the How to End a Pandemic podcast. Could you tell us more about your day-to-day involvement?

My work was centered on coding the interviews’ metadata, transcribing, and drafting policy proposals on pandemic preparedness strategies to address the needs of communities and responders during an outbreak. I found it rewarding that the work I was a part of would ultimately go into an open-access archive that anyone can learn from.

Could you share some key lessons from your collaboration?

Collaborating on these projects has reinforced the importance of incorporating different perspectives into decision-making processes. By listening to firsthand accounts from key actors across various fields, I have gained an understanding of the myriad ways to engage in global health initiatives. Moreover, it has shown me how integral each component is in an emergency situation. This collaboration has also provided valuable insights into the intricacies of pandemic response efforts, offering a deeper look into the operational realities on the ground and the existing gaps that require attention. Lastly, it has broadened my knowledge of potential applications of the One Health framework and the value of incorporating principles from medical anthropology into my future career endeavors.