Dr Naomi Priest received her PhD in 2009 in population health at the University of Melbourne, going on to complete a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) post-doctoral fellowship in social epidemiology. In 2014-15 she was a Visiting Scientist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She now works at the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your research and teaching passions as an academic.
I'm currently a professor of social epidemiology. In a previous life I was a paediatric occupational therapist – I worked in rural and Metro communities in early childhood, and then made the transition to research.
With COVID lots of people have now heard of epidemiology – the science that studies patterns and causes of population health. We’ve heard a lot from infectious disease epidemiologists who study the patterns of how diseases such as COVID-19 impact population health, which groups are most at risk, and what interventions are needed to protect our health. Social epidemiology focuses on how social forces and social factors impact population health and on the social patterning of health and health risk factors. Racism is a key social force and social factor impacting health and that’s a major part of my work.
There has been discussion recently that racism, as much as COVID-19, is a global public health crisis. Could you tell us more about this concept?
We've all seen and experienced how a virus clearly can have a massive impact on the whole population. And we've had to change our behaviour in terms of the evidence from scientists and health officials; How much lockdown do we need? What vaccine is the most effective? But we've also got another pandemic, and that's the pandemic of racism. Many of the top medical journals such as the Lancet, the British Medical Journal and the U.S Center for Disease Control have named racism a public health crisis and called it the ‘other pandemic’.
I don't think it's an underestimation to say that racism has caused more sickness and mortality than COVID has. We need to be paying as much attention to dismantling racism as we have to responding to COVID. How do we protect our society against racism and its effects? This is a public health issue but it’s also a moral and human rights issue.
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