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Alumni Discuss Governing in a Time of Public Health Crisis


More than 75 members of the Hamilton community gathered via Zoom on April 29 to hear alumni experts discuss the challenges and realities of governing amidst a pandemic. The virtual panel, hosted by the Hamilton Career Network, featured Tom Vilsack ’72, former U.S. secretary of agriculture and governor of Iowa; Bill Purcell ’76, former mayor of Nashville; and Maura Calsyn ’95, managing director of health policy at the Center for American Progress.

The panel was moderated by Michael O’Leary ’04, and panelists covered a range of topics related to health policy and crisis management, focusing specifically on the response of the federal and state governments to COVID-19.

Speaking about the effectiveness of the federal government’s response, Calsyn said there was evidence of a larger problem than unpreparedness or lack of understanding of the virus. “I think that this crisis has clearly shown that you can’t run government like a business,” she said. “Government works when you have people in charge that believe in government and think it has an important role to play in ensuring and protecting people’s health.”

Vilsack echoed this sentiment, expressing dismay at the divide between federal and state leadership. “Leaders at this point in time should not be worried about credit,” he said. “They should be looking for solutions that matter to people on the ground level.”

Purcell outlined the role of local governments in responding to these unprecedented times, drawing a comparison to the events of 9/11 nearly 20 years ago. “The workforce is living locally — all politics is local, all people are local — and when it comes time to respond, and again 9/11 showed us that right away, it was mayors and cities and counties and the local officials that ultimately had to decide what to do first and then continue to respond” he explained. “I think that lesson is the one that has to be reaffirmed now.”

All three panelists shared the aspects of the crisis that worry them the most, including issues that may be receiving less attention than they deserve. Purcell pointed to a general feeling of safety among the public, claiming that the economy will not return to its normal state until people feel comfortable traveling and gathering again.

For Vilsack, one of the biggest problems the U.S. faces is the absence of a system that allows food producers and co-ops to connect with food banks and pantries, noting that the exchange of valuable nutrition supplies has always run through retail. Calsyn emphasized the economic and racial disparities in America’s health system, including both unequal access to healthcare resources and environmental risks to physical wellbeing.

O’Leary ended the event on a more optimistic note, asking panelists what gives them hope despite the uncertain circumstances. “To me, what we are seeing is the people on the front lines who are dealing with this crisis in a very real way, is an example of ‘unconquerable people’,” Vilsack said, referencing a quote from Winston Churchill. “It is my hope and belief that as a result of this experience, we’re going to see greater respect for those folks who serve us in a variety of capacities that have been ignored.”

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