The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the winter freeze and subsequent power outages in February 2021, shined a spotlight on the intersection of public health and politics—and how both affect one’s daily life.
With funding from the National Science Foundation, a University of Texas at Arlington faculty member is studying how the state of Texas and entities such as food banks and homeless shelters responded to both crises in hopes of bringing much-needed insights that could inform planning and preparation for future disasters.
“As academic disciplines, public health and political science provide the tools to look at the world around you in a scientific manner and understand it, said Daniel Sledge, associate professor of political science. “Then when you see something bad going on in your neighborhood, you’re able to go out and actually do something about it.”
Sledge is a multifaceted researcher, teacher and published author with expertise in how political science plays a role in public health and to how to better enhance public health policies. The simultaneous crises of COVID-19 and Winter Storm Uri offered an opportunity to improve the state’s disaster response strategies. Sledge plans to share his findings with public officials and practitioners.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has represented a massive shock to the American public health system and to our routines,” he said. “How do these service-providing entities respond when there are already significant public health protocols in place from the COVID-19 pandemic and now there’s no electricity and multiple bad things are happening at the same time?”
Sledge says this project is personal. He sat freezing in his house for four days and dealt with a burst pipe, witnessing how the compounding crises were affecting his students, friends, family and community. It reminded him of previous experiences studying disaster recovery responses after hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people in disaster zones, and the level of disorientation after something like that is significant,” he said. “Especially after a year of COVID and then the winter storm happening, it really put a lot of people in difficult situations.”
Rebecca Deen, chair of UTA’s Political Science Department, says Sledge’s research has significant implications for disaster response.
“Dr. Sledge’s work on the politics of health care and health policy is so important, especially as the globe grapples with the pandemic and its repercussions,” she said. “This is just one example of the dynamic and timely work conducted by award-winning faculty in the Department of Political Science.”
Carrington Matthews, a graduate student assigned to the research project, is diving right in after having just completed her political science undergraduate degree in May 2021. She says government has always been an underlying interest for her.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has driven me to better understand how public health is affected so much by policy,” Matthews said. “The classes I’ve had at UTA have proven to me that I’m following my passion and that I’m where I belong—studying how people interact with each other and with the institutions that we’ve made for ourselves.”