Politics & Public Health: Dean’s Conversation Series features White House veteran Ron Klain

From the Ebola epidemic to COVID-19, former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain discussed the intersection of public health and politics with Dean Ashish K. Jha.

President Christina H. Paxson welcomed a full house to the launch of the 2023-2024 Dean’s Conversation Series on September 28 at Alumnae Hall. Crowds had gathered to hear from the event’s special guest, Ron Klain, a distinguished figure in government, law and public affairs whose career accomplishments include advising three U.S. presidents. 

Most recently, Klain served as White House Chief of Staff under President Biden, a tenure marked by significant achievements that includes overseeing the administration’s COVID-19 response and contributing to key legislative milestones such as the American Rescue Plan Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. Klain also served as Vice President Al Gore’s chief of staff from 1995 to 1999 and led the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola virus.

Dean Ashish K. Jha, who served alongside Klain during his tenure as White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, began the conversation by asking about the transition period of the Biden administration in late 2020. 

“We were in pretty bad days,” Jha said. “We had a lot to do. We had a president who was not super excited about leaving the office. The economy was facing substantial headwinds. The challenges were extraordinary. In that broad set of challenges, how did you think about the pandemic? How did it get prioritized?”

“ The world is interconnected. If there is going to be a pandemic, the only way to be safe at home is to fight the disease around the world. It was true for Ebola and it’s true for Covid. ”

Ron Klain former White House Chief of Staff

Klain explained that the administration was focused on four crises: the pandemic, the economy, climate change, and the racial injustices afflicting the country. “With COVID, we needed someone who really knew how to make the agencies work together,” he said. “It was about logistics, about scientists getting things where they needed to be. It was an intergovernmental effort. We needed a strong response.”

Klain noted that Biden’s transition team found that there was no plan in place to administer vaccines. They were being delivered to state health departments, which did not have the organizational structures to vaccinate the American public. 

“We found that we didn’t have enough vaccines, and the little we did have was not getting into people’s arms,” he said. “So we decided to turn to commercial pharmacies, who have the infrastructure and the experience to administer shots at scale. We also turned to community centers to administer vaccines to underserved communities. When we took office in January, we set the plan in motion and began to distribute the vaccines in a wide way.”

The conversation then turned to Klain's experiences during the Ebola crisis, with Jha asking what insights they provided about the U.S. health care system.

One challenge during the Ebola crisis was recruiting doctors, nurses and health care professionals to suspend their lives to treat Ebola patients in West Africa, Klain said. He singled out Dr. Craig Spencer, associate professor of the practice of health services, policy and practice at Brown, who caught the disease himself while treating Ebola patients on the front lines in Africa.

Klain stressed that the “people of West Africa were the tip of the spear in fighting Ebola. They were fighting upfront and firsthand. But the U.S. provided support that included infrastructure and security at a critical moment,” deploying troops to retrieve blood samples and deliver them to labs.

Klain highlighted both strengths and weaknesses within the U.S. health care system. He noted that the UK’s ability to rapidly mobilize 200 doctors to combat Ebola was facilitated by their “national unified system. We don’t have that system,” he said. “Ours is highly decentralized. It’s harder to do a command-and-control response.” Consequently, Klain and his team found themselves reaching out to individual hospitals, requesting small groups of volunteers at a time.

On the other hand, Klain pointed out an advantage of the U.S. system, stating, “We can be more resilient because if one part fails, another can step in.” So in the UK, if one nurse contracted Ebola, all were recalled. That didn’t happen with US volunteers because they were operating independently.

To round out the conversation, Jha asked Klain to elaborate on global leadership, and the United States’ role in an epidemiological crisis.

“The world is interconnected. If there is going to be a pandemic, the only way to be safe at home is to fight the disease around the world,” he said. “It was true for Ebola and it’s true for Covid. A lot of nations were dependent on the U.S. for vaccines. There were many horrible trade-offs and hard choices. But our goal was to make sure that vaccines were available all over the world.”

Klain ended this talk by acknowledging the work of Dean Jha, “an outstanding expert in critical fields,” he said, “who put his life on hold to work in small offices in the White House 24/7 on hard problems.” He encouraged Brown students to follow Jha’s lead and consider public service. “It doesn’t have to be forever,” he said. “But for those of you who are interested in public and global health, we need you.”

Dean's Conversation: Ron Klain