Dr. Deborah Birx: Quiet Female Leadership

Courtesy of the United States Department of State

By Eva Lynch

As the world continues to shut down at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic, the voices of President Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force have emerged as reassuring for Americans’ fear and uncertainty.

For those who don’t watch the White House’s weekly Task Force briefings, Dr. Deborah Birx may be an unfamiliar name, and this media underrepresentation in favor of Dr. Anthony Fauci, though he is her mentor, may represent the system of patriarchy persisting. Yet, her iconic scarves and quiet leadership actually represent the opposite: a role model for women and girls everywhere. Her appointment to the otherwise all-male task force, with the exception of administrator Seema Verma, is a statement on the issue in itself, and she was boosted into her position by her impressive pedigree. 

As a graduate of Houghton College in Pennsylvania, Birx is not only a role model for American women, but also for students burdened by popular wisdom that a career begins and ends at the university they choose to attend. For the 28 years after she earned her medical degree from Pennsylvania State University, Birx served as an active duty officer in the United States Army as the Director of the US Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. She also served within the Department of Defense and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center where she ultimately ascended to Colonel. 

She first met Dr. Fauci, with whom she currently leads the Coronavirus Task Force, in 1983, while completing a fellowship in his lab before she began her impressive career in immunology. 

Her career primarily focused on immunological methods to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic, where she emerged as a driving force towards ending the epidemic as quickly as possible. Birx’s legendary work against the epidemic, including when she saved herself from an HIV-contaminated blood transfusion during the birth of her first daughter, makes her the only doctor on the Task Force with battle experience against a disease for which the cure continuously eludes scientists. 

“She’s driven by data and results and getting the job done,” said Jen Kates, Senior Vice President and Director of Global Health and HIV Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “I think the one thing probably a lot of people who know her well would say about her is she is driven to get the job done.”

In 2005, Birx left her position in the U.S. Army to direct the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) division of Global HIV/AIDS. Her leadership and data-driven approach at this part of the CDC’s center for Global Health have filled the American people with hope for the same success during the current pandemic. 

Vice president Mike Pence announced her position on the task force on February 27, temporarily suspending her work as the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief Program (PEPFAR). She was nominated for this position by former president Barack Obama. PEPFAR’s low profile shows that the job isn’t a matter of esoteric diplomatic visits fulfilling a publicity stunt; Birx’s success in this highly scrupulous foreign-aid operation is yet another triumph for her research’s grounding in statistical evidence. 

Many viewers and critics of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, as a part of his arguably bungled handling of the pandemic, presumptively lump Birx in with these inadequacies. But while these critics resort to cryptanalysis of her blinking cipher or reduce her to an idle bystander of Trump’s fact-defiant speeches, Birx’s poise endures. 

While Dr. Birx may not be a household name, her fashion sense, impressive background, and newly-public work all contribute to her increasing popularity, just one of the many changes that will follow the COVID-19 pandemic. Her politics don’t matter, and neither does her age; what’s salient is her commitment to ending the current situation and her undeniable ability to do so.

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