Gruber Distinguished Lecturer in Global Justice: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha delivered the 2020 Global Justice Lecture via Zoom on Monday, October 26, 2020 at 6:00pm, entitled, “Water Crisis in Flint and COVID-19 Pandemic in U.S.: Lessons Learned and Preparing for The Next Public Health Crisis.”
Dr. Mona is a pediatrician, professor, and public health advocate whose research exposed the Flint water crisis. She is now the director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative.
While in conversation with Professor Kaveh Khoshnood, the Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Yale School of Public Health, Dr. Mona began by explaining how her ancestry influenced her decision to become a pediatrician and activist. An immigrant, Dr. Mona moved from Iraq to the U.S. at an early age, where her parents instilled in her the ideals of public service. She learned of the injustices and oppression her parents had fled, whom her Iraq-based family members still faced; this impelled her to want to make the world around her more just. As a high school student she became involved in environmental advocacy. She organized community protests against the reopening of an incinerator near a local elementary school. This was an early lesson in evidence based advocacy, which would serve her well in her future as a pediatrician, and in her ability to expose the lead poisoning of Flint’s water supply and push for effective change.
She then discussed her study and practice medicine as a pediatrician. Dr. Mona understood the importance of clinical work yet knew that to make a lasting change she would have to work at the population level. She therefore, in addition to her medical degree pursued a Masters in Public Health.
In thinking about the factors that led to the Flint water crisis, Dr. Mona emphasized the importance of the historical context of the city. In the 1930s, Flint was the center for automobile manufacture as well as the middle class. By the 1970s, people in Flint had the highest per capita income, as the city underwent a period of significant prosperity. However, once automobile plants closed down, economic and social disparities followed in their wake, driven by greed, racism, and neglect. Flint, Michigan was near bankruptcy, the state took over emergency management and removed the role of local officials altogether. In April 2014, these unelected, unaccountable emergency managers made the decision to change the water source from Lake Michigan to the polluted Flint river. To Dr. Mona, the Flint water crisis was thus driven by man-made policy decisions that disregarded democracy and health.
At first, Dr. Mona reassured the parents of her patients that the water was fine, not thinking that the city would be negligent towards the public’s health. Eventually, she learned (through a friend) of an alarming federal EPA memo; it noted that Flint was skipping corrosion control of its water. Lead was seeping into the water supply, endangering the health and development of Flint’s children. Dr. Mona was spurred to action. She conducted research into the lead levels of children before and after the water switched in April 2014, and found concerning amounts in their blood samples.. To Dr. Mona, this was a case of indifference and disrespect for the people of Flint whose population was majority black, brown, and not well-to-do. After much effort (detailed in her book, "What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City" (Penguin Random House, 2018), she brought this injustice to light and was able to work to have it remedied.
Dr. Khoshnood asked her if there were lessons that she learned from Flint that could be applied to the current coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Mona responded that it is not enough to have science and public health infrastructure, important though that is. We also need participatory democracy and representative governance that can leverage existing tools. The Flint water poisoning, just like the effects of the pandemic, were preventable public health crises. Flint has been very touched by COVID-19 but also has also been able to use the physical and social infrastructure that was built up in the last crisis. Dr. Mona believes that the nation is now learning the lessons that Flint learned in 2014. More investment in what keeps people healthy, respect for scientists and the science they do, and a commitment to inclusion and democracy ought to be the takeaways from Flint.