Barbara Ferrer, Social Welfare Queen of Los Angeles County

Non-doctor health boss locks down the people, throws away the key.

“I think we have to all recognize that we’re not moving beyond COVID-19,” Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced last week. “We’re learning to live with it. We’ve never been fully closed, we’ll never be completely open until we have cure.” Mayor Garcetti did not indicate when the cure might be forthcoming, but he was rather certain about the continued lockdown. Embattled residents of Los Angeles might wonder who is calling the shots during the pandemic.

The Los Angeles County Public Health Director is Dr. Barbara Ferrer, but local residents expecting a virologist, molecular biologist, or epidemiologist at the helm would be disappointed. Many were surprised to learn that, unlike her predecessor Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Dr. Ferrer is not even a medical doctor.

Ferrer earned a doctorate in “Social Welfare,” which might draw a  blank from someone with a PhD in physics, mathematics, or history. Ferrer earned her PhD at Brandeis, which is sketchy on the course of study for social welfare. On the other hand, graduate Freida Kapor Klein touts hidden bias, diversity and inclusion. University of North Carolina professor La Verne Reid, speaks of “health inequities,” and Michael Levine, chief knowledge officer of the Sesame Workshop, hails “social justice policymaking.” Still, there may be more to it.

The Social Welfare doctoral program at UC Berkeley, “is designed to inspire independence and originality of thought in pursuit of knowledge.” The social welfare program develops scholars “who make significant contributions to social work and social welfare teaching, research, policy development and analysis, and administration” and “address a wide range of contemporary societal problems.” Social welfare doctor Barbara Ferrer did not study at Berkeley, but before her master’s in public health at Boston University, she earned a BA in “Community Studies” at UC Santa Cruz.

Community studies, the university explains, dates from 1969 and was “a pioneer in addressing principles of social justice, specifically inequities arising from race, class, and gender dynamics in society.” Students in the program “spend six months participating in and analyzing the work of a social justice organization,” and graduates have been placed in “food justice organizations, immigrant rights centers, homeless resource and support groups, queer and transgender organizations,” and other groups, “all pursuing a social justice mission.”

That background got Ferrer hailed as a “public health hero,” who with her partners “developed a blueprint for eliminating racial and ethnic disparities which would immediately enact change, beginning with the way research data was collected and received about health and morbidity to represent racial, ethnic and language differences.” That does not amount to medical science, but for Barbara Ferrer it didn’t matter.

With her MPH and doctorate in social welfare, Ferrer duly became health commissioner for Boston, then the chief strategy officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation which “supports children and families as they strengthen and create conditions that propel vulnerable children to achieve success as individuals and as contributors to the larger community and society.” In 2017, Ferrer made the move west to Los Angeles County, home to 10 million residents, approximately the population of Sweden.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas pronounced Ferrer “uniquely qualified to lead and serve Los Angeles County’s diverse populations,” and the county granted her an annual salary of $376,635. Three years later Ferrer pulls down a cool $465,411, more than the official salary of the president of the United States. As the coronavirus pandemic unfolded and Garcetti locked down Los Angeles, it emerged that Ferrer was not a medical doctor. When some questioned her qualifications, Ferrer pushed back.

“This is a tough job for anybody to have to do,” Ferrer told reporters. “The one thing I do want to note is I don’t make decisions by myself. I have an amazing team of public health practitioners.” As residents might have noted, it’s not Los Angeles County that has the amazing team but Barbara Ferrer her own self. The unelected health boss clearly has a sense of her own power.

Last week, after Dr. Anthony Fauci argued for keeping the lockdown in place, Ferrer announced that absent “dramatic change to the virus” the county would continue its shutdown for the next three months. Mayor Garcetti chimed in with “longer than three months,” followed by the proclamation that Los Angeles would “never be completely open,” until we have a “cure.” That was the position of California Gov. Gavin Newsom who said on May 7 that California would not return to normal until a vaccine for COVID-19 was discovered. As many in California and across the country have noted, that marks a steep escalation from “flattening the curve.” 

Los Angeles County public health boss Barbara Ferrer is good with the lockdown, and the $465,611-a-year social welfare queen does not appear disturbed by the millions now out of work, the countless businesses going bust, and the students missing school. Barbara Ferrer is not a medical doctor but she boasts a background in the non-disciplines of “community studies” and “social welfare.” That makes Barbara Ferrer the ideal choice for politicians eager to exploit a pandemic for political ends, even if it deprives the people of their most basic rights. 


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