Our Most Memorable Global Health Stories From 2020

A look back at the DGHI news that stood out in the most remarkable of years.

Published December 15, 2020

Written by Michael Penn

Let’s admit it, the past year was one many of us would just as soon forget. The COVID-19 pandemic claimed too many lives and revealed the baffling failure of some of the world’s best equipped nations to confront a public health emergency.

But if there’s anything useful to be learned from the endless slog that was 2020, it is that global health innovation and leadership is absolutely essential to a brighter future. Even as the pandemic raged, global health researchers moved with unprecedented speed to study the novel coronavirus and design new tools to fight it, all while maintaining focus on the litany of health challenges the pandemic made worse.

In that spirit of optimism, we’ve collected some of the most notable and memorable stories from the Duke Global Health Institute over the past year. To be sure, the pandemic casts a long shadow over this work, but these stories offer rays of hope – a reason to believe in a better year ahead.

Here are our picks:

Students Envision a More Equitable Future

Before we became consumed with masks and social distancing, decolonization – a quest to shift the power balance in global health toward low- and middle-income countries – was among the hottest topics in the field. DGHI students Andrea Koris, Laura Mkumba and Yadurshini Raveendran put Duke at the center of that conversation by orchestrating a half-day conference in January that drew more than 500 attendees to contemplate a more equitable future for global health research and training. Here’s our profile from the DGHI Impact Report of the three students and a movement that will continue to push for social justice in the field.

Around DGHI

Putting Decolonization on the Agenda

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DGHI Scientists Dive in to Study Novel Coronavirus

A novel virus begins infecting humans, and very little is known about its origins or ability to spread. It’s a frightening scenario, but one that global health researchers spend their careers preparing for. And when it happened in January, they were ready. Here’s one story from March about how researchers at Duke institutions and labs across the world dove in to unravel key questions about the novel coronavirus – and why they were able to harness decades of previous research to accelerate development of new tools to defeat it.

Research News

Duke Researchers Pivot to Attack the New Coronavirus

Years of experience fuel Duke scientists as they strive to create solutions that

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Meanwhile, Interest in Global Health Classes Surges

In early spring, Professor David Boyd noted a huge spike in the number of people signing up for his Coursera course, “Challenges in Global Health.” At the same time, many other professors were adapting their courses on the fly to inject lectures and projects related to COVID-19 and the unfolding pandemic. This article from June highlights how DGHI teachers embraced the new interest from learners at every level.

Education News

Embracing Global Health’s Teachable Moment

The pandemic is increasing interest in global health. Here’s how DGHI’s educational

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Scientists Speak Up About COVID Response

As COVID-19 cases rose around the world, fear and confusion spread almost as rapidly as the virus, creating what many called a pandemic of misinformation. DGHI experts did their part to provide an antidote, doing hundreds of media interviews and public events to offer what they had learned about the virus and the most effective measures to control its spread. At least 40 op-eds and commentaries written by DGHI faculty have run in major media outlets since the start of the pandemic. Here are three noteworthy examples:

Jonathan Quick
Jonathan Quick

What We Can Learn from the 20th Century...

Gavin Yamey
Gavin Yamey

What the U.S. Needs to Do Today to...

Lavanya Vasudevan
Lavanya Vasudevan

Getting COVID-19 Vaccines is the Only...

DGHI Center Launches Program on SGM Health

Sexual and gender minorities suffer poor health outcomes in many parts of the world, disparities that are often fueled by stigma and discrimination. In May, DGHI’s Center for Health Policy and Inequities Research announced a new program to study gaps in health access and care for these groups, addressing a problem that has been largely neglected by scholarly research. Here’s our look at how CHPIR plans to bring needed focus to the issue and improve care for LGBTQIA+ individuals and other SGM groups around the world.

Research News

Health Disparities Among Sexual and Gender Minorities Mark a Serious, Under-Addressed Need

Duke researchers have launched a new program to address poor health outcomes for

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The Tragic Costs of Road Accidents

Another often overlooked global health issue took center stage in this August article. Ninety-three percent of road traffic-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, and rapid urbanization threatens to make the problem even worse. Against that urgent backdrop, DGHI professors Catherine Staton and João Ricardo Vissoci are using maps and data systems to see patterns in road traffic and accidents and injuries, offering important clues on how to more effectively prevent and treat accident-related trauma cases.

Research News

No One Should Have to Pay a Price for Mobility

Two DGHI researchers are studying how to prevent and treat road traffic injuries in

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No Field Research? No Problem.

Adaptation was a dominant theme of 2020. Lockdowns and safety precautions forced classes online or, in the case of a fall course taught by Eric Green, into unusual new spaces. But no one had to scramble more than the several dozen global health students who planned to travel over the summer to conduct field research. With the considerable help of their professors and the DGHI education staff, all of those students found alternative plans, which in many cases had unexpected rewards. Here’s one of our favorite examples of finding a silver lining, from global health master’s student Anna Lehmann:

Student Stories

What Happens When A Global Health Student Can't Travel?

An interview with rising second-year global health master's degree student Anna

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Students’ Project Lends a Helping Hand

Designed by a student-led Bass Connections team, the Help Desk project launched in 2018 to connect patients at a Durham health clinic with community resources. When the pandemic shuttered many businesses and offices, that service became even more critical. This article shows how students went above and beyond the scope of their project to ensure vulnerable patients knew how to access services in the midst of the pandemic.

Education News

Student-Run "Help Desk" Has Blossomed Into A Large Local Resource

Through a Bass Connections project, student volunteers connect patients with social

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Lessons from Another Pandemic

In October, long-time DGHI professor and physician John Bartlett recalled the early days of the AIDS crisis in an episode of “Voices of Medicine,” a podcast produced by the Duke Department of Medicine. Bartlett’s stories about the fear and uncertainty of facing a novel virus and his dedication to deliver compassionate care when few good medical options existed feel both familiar and inspiring for our current situation.

Voices of DGHI

The Joy of Medicine

Get tissues — Duke global health physician John Bartlett's new podcast interview may

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Vaccines Bring Promise… and Many Questions

The emergence of multiple COVID-19 vaccine candidates has shone a rare beam of hope on the closing days of 2020. But now comes the hard part: a global campaign to distribute billions of vaccine doses quickly and equitably, even as the pandemic rages on. And so we end our look back at 2020 with a collection of stories looking forward, with three articles addressing the challenge of speedy, equitable vaccine distribution.

Preparing for a COVID Vaccine panelists
Research News

Will the World Be Ready for a COVID...

Duke experts on vaccine confidence
Research News

Duke Experts: Meet Vaccine Skeptics With...

COVID-19 vaccine
Research News

Will Low-Income Countries Be Left Behind...