Social Impact Internships: Melody Wu (’22)

Tracking COVID-19 and Bringing New Perspectives with the CDC Foundation
Melody and her sister wearing matching masks made by their grandmother

When we were sent back home in a flurry of emotions, shock, and urgency this spring, I remember coming back home and not being able to sleep well for days— waking up worrying that something would dramatically change again and thinking that the world was falling apart. What helped, surprisingly, was to dedicate myself to building a document of research about COVID-19 I had started when I was back on campus. 

In part, this document became my source of collecting information, shared with friends and loved ones. It was my way of staying properly informed, tracking and verifying the progress of information over time. Slowly, it also became my source of peace in knowing what was going on and being able to do something about it, even if it was just staying informed. 

Above all else, it was a constant reminder for me what we were experiencing was real. As the semester went on, this document grew bit by bit with information I collected with friends. And now, even in the summer, it’s still a document I update here and there as I learn about how the field of public health is responding and as I soak in the news and attend the variety of webinars on the pandemic and its impacts. 

I don’t know if it’s really something particularly useful anymore, but I think this document is one of the reasons I was drawn to apply as a COVID-19 intern at the CDC Foundation. Community health is something that has always interested me— how the ways in which we interact and are all connected impact our daily living situations and our well-being (both physical and mental). The internship promised the opportunity to not only see the public health field’s response to COVID-19, but to engage and support the efforts going on at the community level as well. 

Over this last month or so, I’ve learned much about the public health and global health field— from the bureaucracy that comes with being a public government field to the extensive network that occurs at local, state, federal, and global levels when it comes to collaboration and sharing of information and practices. I’ve also come to see how essential, but also how challenging, it is for public health to address health equity in communities across the U.S. I’ve gotten to see how intricate communications about COVID-19 can be, and how difficult it can be for public health officials to advise city, county leaders’ decision-making on health issues while maintaining a clear bipartisan stance so people will actually listen. 

My internship has been a mix of awe and frustration: awe in seeing communities and their resilience and response (particularly those who have systemic inequities set against them but continue to face them head on); awe in seeing the number of people in public health who have dedicated decades of experience to their field (many of whom are my supervisors); awe in seeing how hesitant public health has been to adopt technology because of the potential privacy issues and systemic inequities it might exacerbate instead of address; awe in the how the lack of investment in public health and the American healthcares system over the past several decades has resulted in a system that is struggling right now. And this awe is paired with frustration: frustration in seeing, day by day, cases rise and feeling like there’s nothing we can do about it; frustration in seeing contradictory information online at the national and state level; frustration in the amount of mistrust in public health, so much so that public health officials have actually been sent death threats for trying to do right by the public; frustration in how we still haven’t overcome so many of our differences. 

It has become clear to me how much we need to put more faith and trust in public health— even though this is something the US in particular is struggling with at the moment. The highly recommended measures and actions taken to combat COVID-19— like wearing masks, physical distancing, contact tracing, and staying home when possible— aren’t a joke and they are real actions to combat this very real pandemic. At the same time, it’s clear that the public health field going forward must innovate with technology— particularly when it comes to information dissemination and centralization of information to allow for development of communities of practices. This has been particularly clear given the projects that the other CDCF interns and I have been working on this summer. An example of why this matters, just take the CDC website: many of my supervisors (with many years of experience in public health) actually say it’s hard to search for information on the CDC website during this public health crisis (part of me wonders if this has to do with the UI design and perhaps the constantly changing information that goes onto the site). The pandemic is a call for investment by both the public and the national government in developing responsive systems that can touch on the heartbeat of American society: which is currently technology and social media. 

We are dependent on technology in society— and that’s not limited to just the technology like our phones and computers, it’s also the diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines in development and the tools and systems we develop to increase access to all of these. It’s also through social media that people in the US are able to connect, obtain information, and act on that information. US public health faces a tight budget and outdated information technology systems that could do with long-term investment (not just the sudden investment by tech companies now to make a profit off things like contact tracing apps and more, but continued sustainable investment beyond just this pandemic). I’ve always believed that technology can facilitate the creation of solutions, but certainly through this pandemic and through this internship I’ve discovered how much technology cannot be the only solution— it needs to be paired with questions about the ethics of its use, consideration of who has access to the technology being developed or used, and acceptance that technology is not perfect and must be changed and challenged continuously. New technologies need integrated feedback from people and groups. 

What has been particularly insightful and meaningful to me as part of this internship, is how much perspective we can bring as young adults and college students during this time. We may not be the most vulnerable population compared to our elderly, but we are increasingly becoming a growing portion of the number of COVID-19 cases (UMinnesota) and we are at risk in some unexpected but not necessarily surprising ways (UCSF, Johns Hopkins)— we are responsible for the spike but also for ourselves. Not only that, we are worried about our futures as colleges reopen (a big topic of discussion in the public health field, see this Twitter thread), but also as we imagine a post-pandemic (assuming we actually get through this pandemic) future. We imagine an economic recession and the impact it will have on our communities (particularly BIPOC communities and those already struggling to begin with) (AAAS Eureka Alert). The CDC also released a toolkit targeting our age group (CDC) because of increasing concerns that young adults aren’t observing the necessary behaviors we need to curb the cases and the pandemic. 

I believe public health is trying to reach us as young adults though, and as someone interning at the CDC Foundation I do feel a need to speak up as at least one young adult experiencing the pandemic currently, even though I definitely don’t represent the entire young adult group or experience. 

I think it’s crazy how much information is changing so quickly as we try to move past this pandemic that has uprooted our lives, but we are reminded each time as cases rise that we have not even gotten past the first of this properly. Bringing my “young adult” eyes to the table, I go back to that feeling of both awe and frustration, but also that post-being-sent-back-home feeling of being driven— driven to learn, listen, and hopefully add a perspective in public health that might not be particularly present. If anything, I’ve come to recognize that a social impact internship isn’t just something that impacts a said “vulnerable” group or simply observes inequities and their social impacts or tries to “help” a specific community or group. In the long-run, I see how I am impacted too by the communities that surround me and the global network and society I am a part of. A social impact internship is also an internship meant for my own growth, for me to challenge my perspective, and for me to recognize that I must not only recognize and confront present systemic inequities but also recognize that I am also impacted by them. It emphasizes how much we need to confront these systems that need to see change and need further sustained investment. 

Looking to fulfill your fall Experiential Learning Opportunity (ELO)? Check out PKG Social Impact Internships page to learn more about where to find opportunities and how to apply! 

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Tags: CDC Foundation, Social Impact Internships, Summer 2020

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