Public Health Week takes on new urgency and demand for equity

By Jennifer Messenger
April 8, 2020

There has never been a National Public Health Week quite like this one. It’s an unprecedented opportunity to make the case for a better system and to commit to equity and culturally-responsive solutions as we navigate a global pandemic. And there is a new imperative to radically reprioritize public health as we come out of this crisis.

Right now, public health’s focus, benefits and leaders top the news daily, and the many gaps in our system are on stark display. All eyes are on efforts to track and prevent spread of the coronavirus and speed toward a vaccine. Increasingly, the reality of who is most gravely affected and the social factors behind that are getting airtime, too: systemic racism and disproportionate impact in communities of color, lack of safe and affordable housing, lack of health insurance and paid time off; schools’ role in keeping young people safe and healthy; unsafe conditions in hospitals and long-term care facilities; people losing jobs and support services; and much more. That interconnected, equity-focused story is public health in a nutshell. 

The destruction COVID-19 is creating in communities already facing inequities underscores the need for values-based public health messages that are relevant and motivate action—by both policymakers and people in communities across the country.

Policymakers need research and data about who specifically is most affected and why, and about the policy and system changes that will have greatest impact—delivered in a way that resonates with their priorities and the needs of their constituents. 

And individuals need #StayAtHome messages that align with their worldviews and lived realities, not one-size-fits-all, facts-based messaging that may feel irrelevant or impossible to follow. Consider, for example, the impact for people whose jobs or socioeconomic status keep them at work, whose cultures are based in extended family gatherings, who live with disabilities and have specific support needs including close-proximity caregivers, who experience racism and hatred (and for whom wearing a face mask could put their lives at risk), who don’t trust or can’t rely on the health system because of systemic discrimination, who feel “invincible” and many others. 

Last week, Harvard and CDC released fact sheets in many languages. But translation alone does not make information relevant. To advance health equity—and to connect with both policymakers and community members—there’s an urgent need for messages that incorporate three dimensions:

  • Credible, science-based data that is infused with authentic and accurate understanding of the current reality, historical context and systemic and structural conditions—objective data as well as the “who” and “why” behind the numbers. Who does this virus affect most, how and why?
  • Connections to the deeply held values, cultural perspectives and lived experiences that shape people’s worldview and influence their receptivity to new information. What will motivate people to follow behavior recommendations? What will compel decision-makers to focus investments and action where the need is greatest?
  • Convincing language that reflects the thought patterns and reasoning that people use to process new information and make decisions about what to believe or do. Consider, for example, the difference in meaning and impact between “social distance” and “physical distance.”


We invite you to learn more in our updated article, “Promoting Health Equity in Three Dimensions: Creating Messages and Strategies that are Credible, Connected and Convincing.” We hope you’ll also add your voice to National Public Health Week (#NPHW) and underscore the vital need for both short-term action and long-term investment. If you’re interested in going deeper, the American Public Health Association offers resources.  

If you’d like to discuss any of these ideas, please reach out to us at Our team is always up for a good brainstorm, and we look forward to learning and innovating along with you.