Tia Pausic (A86) on the Domestic Response to COVID-19

October 21, 2020 | By Les Poling 

Annapolis alum Tia Pausic (A86)

St. John’s Annapolis alum Tia Pausic (A86) graduated into a rapidly changing world. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989—the same year Pausic graduated from Harvard Law—and throughout the 1980s and ‘90s the AIDS crisis wreaked havoc across the globe. Now, more than 30 years later, the coronavirus pandemic has utterly upended everyday life, and the world once again feels chaotic and uncertain. This time, though, Pausic finds herself in a different scenario: helping one of the world’s foremost international aid nonprofits respond to the threat of COVID-19.

Pausic’s interest in international affairs can be traced to her time in law school. “Democratic governance was springing up in Eastern Europe,” Pausic recalls. “That process fascinated me from a political and a civil society standpoint.” Then, right after she earned her J.D., the Yugoslav Wars erupted. “I’m half Croatian, so from a cultural point of view I was very concerned about what was happening,” she says. “I ended up cofounding a nonprofit organization that was meant to help with the democratic transition of power in Croatia.” She spent 12 years in Croatia and Bosnia working on democracy development programs.

Years later, her interest in international law and human rights led Pausic to become general counsel for International Medical Corps, a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization. Originally founded in 1984 by an emergency physician in Santa Monica, California to help Afghan citizens affected by the Soviet-Afghan war, it’s since grown into a global nonprofit that works in roughly 25 countries around the world. The organization’s purpose, broadly speaking, is “to provide medical and health services to vulnerable populations, especially refugees and displaced persons, and work with the community towards self-reliance,” Pausic says. That means collaborating with local governments to offer public health services; providing general services, reproductive health counseling, and gender-based violence protection in refugee camps; and distributing water, sanitation, and hygiene equipment and training to populations in need, with a specific focus on countering disease spread.

When Pausic joined International Medical Corps in 2016, the worst of the West Africa Ebola crisis had just been declared over. International Medical Corps played a prominent role supporting the nations most affected by the epidemic: distributing equipment, providing training, and building five treatment centers throughout the region. No one could have predicted that only four years later, a public health crisis on an even greater scale would unfold—one that necessitated an urgent response within the U.S.

International Medical Corps generally bolsters domestic health systems by helping with natural disaster relief, sending nurses and volunteers to places like Florida or New Orleans in the wake of hurricanes. This time, “in addition to ensuring that our field offices were as equipped as possible with the tools and policies to address the COVID crisis in other countries, we also decided to be first responders in the United States,” Pausic says.

COVID-19 has a frightening ability to completely overwhelm public health systems. While hospitals may be equipped to handle the disease over a prolonged period of time, the rapid influx of patients in many hospitals has, throughout the crisis, forced healthcare workers into extraordinarily dangerous and tragic situations. To best aid with the domestic coronavirus response, International Medical Corps has focused on providing workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) and establishing triage centers outside hospital doors.

The triage centers—screening sites intended to determine the level of treatment needed for a given patient—arose from the organization’s experience with Ebola. “[In that case] there was real concern about admitting patients into hospitals without knowing whether or not they had Ebola,” says Pausic. “Because if patients did have it, the frontline health workers had to take extreme measures in terms of PPE and disposing medical waste.” Similarly, the COVID-19 triage sites help hard-hit hospitals direct their resources to patients who need them most, consequently helping workers conserve PPE. “We triage incoming patients so that people who are seriously ill with COVID-19—or other serious illnesses—will go into the hospital themselves,” Pausic says. “Those patients with illnesses that are not as serious can potentially be treated within the triage center.”

In order to be most effective, International Medical Corps worked with local governments in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Puerto Rico, and Los Angeles—where the organization is headquartered—to determine which hospitals needed urgent help. “The state governments are leading the responses,” Pausic explains. “We prefer dealing with the centralized system to make sure we’re part of the solution rather than just showing up.” After being directed to specific sites, International Medical Corps created fully staffed triage centers—either using their mobile hospital, stored by FedEx in Memphis, or in some cases by developing modular hospitals from scratch.

As field workers mobilized, Pausic began working on the behind-the-scenes policy that keeps International Medical Corps running. In the early days of the virus, she helped implement the nonprofit’s shift to telework, coordinating with other departments to create policies and procedures that enabled staff to work from home and ensured that frontline field workers had proper equipment. She also worked with government donors, including the U.S. government, the European Union, and more, to make sure they would continue funding International Medical Corps. “Just as an example, let’s say we have a $20 million program in Iraq,” Pausic says. “The donor is asking: ‘Do we continue funding [International Medical Corps] to perform agreed-upon activities? Or do we divert some of that money to a COVID response?’ Everything was sort of up in the air as soon as countries started closing down, so we needed to carefully monitor what the donors were doing.”

“With 25 different countries and roughly 300 active grants at any one time, you can see how the complications and complexity can multiply,” she adds. “So needless to say, for the past couple of months, our staff has been working flat out.”

But the nonstop nature of her professional life hasn’t kept Pausic from her role as the past president of the St. John’s Alumni Association Board—another organization adapting rapidly to worldwide disruption. Ordinarily, the past president runs the alumni awards committee and acts as a source of institutional knowledge for current and future leadership. While some of that remains the case, Pausic and the rest of the board have shifted to maintain the alumni association’s presence in the Johnnie community. In-person events have pivoted to platforms like Zoom, and the entire board gathered virtually to welcome the Class of 2020 to the alumni association; while ordinarily an individual board member would have been present at each campus’s Commencement, “we were happy to be able to participate in that way as well,” Pausic says.

It’s not lost on her that those newly minted Johnnie alumni are entering a world defined by unprecedented chaos. “I think it’s important that we start with the recognition that this is hard,” she notes. But the fact that those students have completed the Program gives her hope.

“In the past 30-odd years, my St. John’s education—among other things—has enabled me to quickly adapt to new and strange situations,” Pausic says. “I have every confidence that someone who has been able to study biology and physics, and read Kant and Hegel, will be able to adapt to this new environment.”