Professor Michael Baker

Public health specialist Professor Michael Baker from the University of Otago, Wellington, received the Critic and Conscience of Society Award earlier this week for his extraordinary efforts in keeping the citizens of New Zealand informed about the COVID-19 crisis and public health issues in general.

Professor Baker has worked incredibly hard over the past few months to help educate and inform both policy makers and the New Zealand public about how to combat COVID-19. He has been sought by media internationally to comment on both the international and New Zealand response to the pandemic, as well as providing expert advice to the Government and practical advice to New Zealanders.

The Critic and Conscience of Society Award acknowledges academic staff who provide independent, expert commentary on issues that affect the New Zealand community and its future generations. Recipients receive $50,000 to assist with research, conferences and other work-related expenses.

Professor Pat Walsh, from the Award’s judging panel, says Professor Baker’s commitment to New Zealand’s public health capacity is longstanding and has focused on the need for Government to take responsibility for public health and to be prepared to prioritise the health and wellbeing of people and the environment over commercial interests.

“But of course in 2020, Michael’s public intellectual role as critic and conscience reached new levels. He is a member of the Government’s COVID-19 Technical Advisory Group engaging directly with the Ministry of Health and seeking to shape the New Zealand policy response.

“At the same time, he has been an extraordinarily prominent media commentator, informing the public, criticising and praising the Government’s policy response and always being a consistent and fearless advocate for what he sees as the most effective responses to the huge challenge that this pandemic has laid down for us.”

Professor Baker says he is very grateful to receive the award.

“The last six months have reminded me yet again of the value of research intensive universities. During this crisis, they have provided a huge amount of support for New Zealand’s very successful response to COVID-19.

“I also want to thank my many colleagues who have been great collaborators as well as filling in for me at times so I could focus on the pandemic.”

Professor Baker plans to use his award funding to build on New Zealand’s successful pandemic response. He hopes that the country can “reset” its direction to better manage other public health threats such as the looming climate change crisis and environmental disruption.

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