COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic for Erika Willacy ’99. She has spent years at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) managing outbreak responses around the world, with a particular focus on those who are systematically disadvantaged and shut out of health care systems—people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and in particular migrants and refugees.
“When there were outbreaks or issues in refugee camps, I was involved in helping to coordinate or decide on what our health education strategies would be, especially if there were preventative measures we wanted to take while they’re in the camp,” Erika says.
“The 2014 Ebola outbreak was very long, so frequently I was taken out of my regular job duties to be leading or supporting various aspects of CDC’s response to those emergencies,” she says. The scramble to respond to Ebola, as well as other outbreaks she witnessed, led her to realize that she needed to provide leadership training—making sure the systems and people on the front lines of these challenges work together well.
Over the years, Erika has worked in 20 countries, building public health leadership systems around the world. Recently, she began working part-time at the CDC so that she could pursue her Ph.D. at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, focusing on leadership.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Erika’s skills have been needed more than ever. Right now, Erika says, alongside scientific solutions, we need adaptive and people-centered leadership. Adaptive leadership is “based on this idea that public health itself is really volatile, and unpredictable … we’ve seen that during COVID. How do you appropriately lead within that, if everything’s constantly changing?”
In public health, she says, “We’re very focused on how we solve the technical, the scientific aspects,” but more work is needed on the behavior-centered aspects of public health. That’s something Erika first understood at Wellesley, where she majored in psychobiology (now neuroscience). Scientific progress on its own is not enough: In fighting any epidemic, you have to contend with people’s perceptions and attitudes.
“People don’t always perform the way you want them to,” Erika says. “How are you going to address that? You can’t simply rely on, ‘Well, I’m just going to tell all these people that the science says this, and they will do what I say because they also believe in the science.’”
Multiple scientific studies conducted during the current pandemic have shown that persistent misinformation and lack of trusted sources within communities worldwide have led to lower vaccination rates, even in places where vaccines are widely available. Erika says that discrepancy calls for systems-level change and adaptive leadership. “We actually built our society whereby people are consistently marginalized and or not engaged or not getting the right information,” she says. “That’s not a technical challenge. That’s an adaptive challenge.”
To solve inequities in health care and immunization, Erika says, we must bring everybody to the table—a conviction she attributes to her time at Wellesley.
“The diversity of Wellesley and the value that we placed on different cultures and people has been tremendously important in my career,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of people that I’ve worked with that just haven’t come to the table, or entered the countries that we work in, with a sense of respect, or a sense of equality. The value of all of us contributors to this world is something that has become part of my DNA, something I’ve really just clung to as I proceeded in my career.”