There are so many examples of incredible commitment around the globe to combating COVID-19. Here we look at three case studies in depth.
Josh and Suzanna’s story
Josh Carpenter (Alabama & Oriel 2012) and Suzanna Fritzberg (Washington & St John’s 2014)
In Birmingham, Alabama, Rhodes Scholars Josh Carpenter and Suzanna Fritzberg demonstrate the vital role that local government can play in helping to tackle the pandemic and shield vulnerable groups from the impact of COVID-19.
Birmingham has a 30% poverty rate, and a population that is 74% African American. In addition to the community-wide public health impacts, for many residents the impact of COVID-19 has been felt most acutely on personal finances. Two-thirds of local workers are facing unemployment as a result of the pandemic, which has far-reaching consequences for child and family poverty and the long-term stability of Birmingham’s economy. With this in mind, local government were deeply concerned about the emergence of COVID-19 and the disproportionate effect it would have on people of colour and vulnerable populations.
Josh and Suzanna developed Birmingham Strong, a public-private partnership, to promote public health and economic resilience in the city. In addition to fostering innovation and keeping the vulnerable safe from the virus, Birmingham Strong also works to empower local residents to meet community needs, ensuring those in the community who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic have a chance to be part of the solution through a paid volunteer programme modeled on Great Depression-era federal programmes. Suzanna, who previously worked as Deputy Chief of Staff and Policy Director to Mayor Pete Buttigieg, is the Founding Executive Director of Birmingham Strong and leads strategy and day-to-day operations. In addition to supporting those who are currently unemployed, she has also focused the partnership on fortifying small businesses through an emergency loan programme, and worked closely with the city to align state, federal and local policies to benefit residents.
As Director of Innovation and Economic Opportunity for the City of Birmingham, and an Alabama native, Josh has led on the efforts to identify new solutions to address new needs, and to build partnerships with community leaders. Sarena Martinez, a Rhodes scholar-elect set to begin at Oxford next year, has also worked closely with Josh, designing and executing a number of initiatives for Birmingham Strong.
To date, the partnership has helped 2,853 small businesses through a $2.4 million loan fund and technical assistance programs. It has supported over 200 unemployed workers through paid employment via the Birmingham Service Corps or local companies, meeting community needs from food delivery to COVID testing to tutoring for school children. The majority of Service Corps members are residents of colour, and on average members have experienced a nearly 50% decrease in their incomes as a result of the pandemic.
Birmingham Strong has evolved to meet ongoing needs related to crisis level unemployment, transitioning to provide Service Corps members with skills-building opportunities in the City’s most promising industries, including precision population medicine. Working closely with colleagues in the public and private sector, Josh and Suzanna hope that this will provide a bridge to opportunity for individual residents, and accelerate Birmingham’s economic competitiveness.
In a crisis where local governments are being called upon to act on the frontline, Josh and Suzanna's work has been vital to responding effectively to the pandemic and has demonstrated the long-standing need to policy solutions that focus on the needs of low-income and vulnerable populations. Reacting effectively to a pandemic of this scale requires significant leadership, making difficult decisions quickly and overcoming unprecedented social challenges. Josh and Suzanna's experiences at Oxford as Rhodes Scholars and the Trust's emphasis on courage and leadership have been critical to helping them with their strategy and approach to tackling this pandemic in Birmingham, Alabama.
Those seeking more information about Birmingham Strong, or who wish to support the organization’s work on behalf of Birmingham residents, should visit bhamstrong.com.
Dr Amanda Rojek (Queensland & University 2012)
Within a few short weeks of Amanda beginning her PhD in global health at Oxford, the Ebola virus had spread across much of West Africa. She quickly began working for her professor, Dr. Peter Horby, one of the world’s leading experts on viral outbreaks, on clinical trials to combat the disease. She travelled to Sierra Leone, working in an Ebola treatment centre to establish a potential cure for the virus. Clinical trials usually take years, but, for the first time during an outbreak, they were able to conduct a clinical trial during an epidemic to help support those on the ground in real time.
After finishing her PHD, Amanda returned to Australia to complete her emergency medicine specialty training. Now, as the world faces the most devastating pandemic in living memory, Amanda’s formative experiences at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar are helping her to play a critical role in the fight against the virus in her home country. As an emergency room doctor, Amanda has advised the government on how to redesign its healthcare system to tackle the virus effectively, supporting with strategy planning, designing new models of care for hospitals, and serving as part of the government's incident management team.
She has also been involved in research, publishing papers that provide advice for doctors on how to establish coronavirus clinics, including practical information on how to keep health workers caring for patients safe. Beyond her efforts in Australia, Amanda also has a visiting fellowship with Oxford to pursue global architecture work on the harmonisation of international research.
She arrived at Oxford with the intention of doing humanitarian work. The Ebola outbreak meant that she was able to pursue her studies in the context of an epidemic, gaining expertise of how a virus manifests itself from a global perspective. While at Rhodes, she embraced the Trust’s values of bravery and courage to find solutions to critical societal problems. Big global crises require big solutions, and the lessons Amanda learned at Oxford are now vital to her work fighting COVID in Australia.
Vidal Arroyo (California & University 2019)
Vidal came to Oxford as Rhodes Scholar to do computational biology research and aims to become a physician-scientist focused on biomedical research when he graduates. When he started at Oxford, he dove head-first into his research. Without a service component to his weekly schedule however, he felt like something was missing.
He talked to one of his friends, Michael Chen, another Rhodes Scholar and a Managing Director at the time for It Gets Brighter, a mental health non-profit co-founded by Joshua Chauvin, also a Rhodes Scholar. Vidal had experiences with mental health in his family and thought that it was a great opportunity to get involved. Through the Rhodes process, Vidal felt he was able to reflect on his experiences with mental health and wanted to be able to contribute whilst at Oxford.
It Gets Brighter collects and features short video messages of hope from those living with a mental health issue, and those who support them. It believes that expressing what’s happening in our heads is better than suppressing it, with a mission to give those struggling the hope that it gets brighter.
Due to the current lockdown procedures, many young people are lacking face-to-face communication with friends and family, leading to a lack of connection, loneliness, and increased mental health issues. Vidal is now working closely with It Gets Brighter to spearhead mental health outreach in the midst of this social distancing period.
Through the It Gets Brighter platform, Vidal is leading a call for videos for people to talk about their mental and emotional experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what they have found to be helpful. The #BrighterCOVIDeos campaign will collect and share these stories across multiple social media platforms for as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The It Gets Brighter platform, and the associated #BrighterCOVIDeos campaign, offers a virtual community of support for those who are struggling.
Vidal didn't come to Oxford to focus on mental health specifically, but the Rhodes community has inspired him to believe that, whatever challenges are in front of us, if we see an issue and have the skills or tool set to do something, it's our collective social responsibility to contribute. Under his leadership, the #BrighterCOVIDeos campaign will provide hope to many young people, reassuring them that they are not alone and that things will, in time, get brighter.