Capital-Star Q+A: Pa. is sick and needs a doctor, says GOP Gov. candidate Nche Zama

Zama talked about vaccines, education policy, and immigration

By: - September 3, 2021 7:14 am

Dr. Nche Zama (Courtesy of the Zama Campaign)

Editor’s note: It’s still 2021, but the 2022 field for Pennsylvania governor is starting to develop. The Capital-Star is trying to sit down with as many candidates as possible to ask them about their campaigns, background, and issues impacting Pennsylvanians.

Feel free to email [email protected] with any questions you’d like to see posed to candidates in the future.

Nche Zama is a 65-year-old heart surgeon who lives in the Poconos. He immigrated to the United States from the central African country of Cameroon at age 14, before studying medicine, including at Harvard University.

Zama is a newcomer to politics, but argues his fresh face and backstory will help him break into a crowded field.

Capital-Star: The first question I ask everyone is, why are you running for governor?

Nche Zama: I’m running for governor because I want to serve the people of Pennsylvania. I want to continue the same type of service that I provided as a cardiothoracic surgeon over the years, but on a larger, wider platform.

C-S: How’d you decide to go from the medical field to politics? Why make this jump?

NZ: I realized that Pennsylvania is dying. And if Pennsylvania’s dying, it is very much in need of a cardiac surgeon for heart surgery. 

I saw the devastation that the viral scourge has done to the state. And the way in which it has been managed, it’s been unsatisfactory. And I saw the tremendous loss of life and the devastation in our educational system, which was already spiraling downhill. And also our healthcare system, which has been overwhelmed, and an economy where over 30% of our businesses have been devastated, and some of them permanently destroyed. There comes a time when silence is betrayal, and that time came for me.

C-S: Especially speaking as someone coming in from the medical profession, how would you have handled COVID differently?

NZ: The scientific community — and by the way, I am a scientist. I have a PhD in science and I’m a physician as well as cardiothoracic surgeon, and I do have an MBA. And so, if you take a look specifically at the coronavirus how it was handled, the best word I can use to describe the methodology is chaotic.

Unfortunately, it’s the medical profession, and scientists, in particular, [that] already have specific types of algorithms historically [on] how to handle pandemics. And then COVID came and [everything] became massive chaos, massive confusion. Instructions were coming from every corner of the universe, every corner of our country, and it placed people, unfortunately, in a very confused state …

… So, how do you handle a pandemic? Well, we don’t have enough time to go into it but suffice to say that under my leadership, one of the first things that I would do is establish a pandemic and preventive medicine council [so] that you can anticipate the viruses.

There are about 25 viruses waiting to enter [the United States], by the way. So, another pandemic is on its way. And we can anticipate and prepare people for it. Not just logistically, but also health wise, preventive medicine. How you take care of yourself, reduce your risk factors in advance. 

If this pandemic told us anything, it says that we need to take better care of ourselves, to reduce our risk factors that put us at a tremendous risk, and make us much more vulnerable to bad side effects and occurrences from acquiring the virus.

C-S: One thing that we’re seeing a debate over is vaccines. Do you support any sort of vaccine mandate, whether it’s for something as small as public employees, teachers, students, or a broader one that might apply to everyone in Pennsylvania?

NZ: So, are vaccines effective? Yes, the science shows that they are effective. But the way in which this whole thing has been deployed has been wrong.

You have … people now who are confused. What direction should I go? So some have decided unilaterally that “I’m not going to do anything. One person is telling me to do this, the other is telling me to do this.” This is disorganized, there’s no concentrated authority. And so I’m not going to take the vaccine.

This is a scenario that is not uncommon during disasters. That’s why one line of communication is very appropriate. 

So yes, if the vaccine has been shown scientifically to be effective, like every drug, you have to really tell people, these are the risks, and these are the benefits. If you come unilaterally from one direction, after people have been confused from instruction, from various directions, and you start mandating it…you’ve already lost the battle before you start.

C-S: Just so I’m clear from this, because I can’t tell from listening to you — it sounds like you would not support any sort of government mandate on vaccination?

NZ: I’m not saying I don’t support — I think the vaccine will protect an individual from COVID.  I’m just saying that the approach that the government has used has been a poor approach. It is not based on traditional science and epidemiology, how to handle pandemics. Because of that, it has left swathes of our population totally confused, and in that confusion and anger, they’ve been resistant to it. 

C-S: So how would you try to break that as governor?

NZ: As governor, [I’d use] the whole concept of preventive medicine, which is more powerful and sustainable than treatment. You prepare people. And you give them the appropriate information as to what the situation is, what the risks of the virus are, and what are the treatment options that we have, and what the risks and benefits of them are. And as our knowledge evolves, you have one channel of communication that says science has evolved, this is now what we know…

… As governor, within a few days of being in the office,  I will start those strategies across the state and every county, to be sure that we’re prepared. And then when time comes, if there’s a treatment option — be it via vaccine or via oral therapy — people would be much more informed and much more receptive.

C-S: A big issue among Republicans is election integrity. Under a Zama administration, how would you want to see the state election code change? How do you want to see the way that we run elections change in Pennsylvania?

NZ: First of all, there’s nothing that is more powerful that undergirds a democracy, like, the right to vote. And if you get to a point where you feel your vote has no value, then we don’t have democracy …

… It’s not just for Democrats, it’s not just for Republicans, it’s not just for independents. It’s for everybody. And so, one of the things that I understand and appreciate is the value of a voter ID, as simple as that. We need IDs for multiple things we do in life, such as buying liquor. It’s not too much of an effort to have people show an ID to vote. 

But above all, not having time to go into in-depth strategic discussions, I will set up a council to look into the most fair and transparent way to make sure that our electoral process brings value to every resident of Pennsylvania, no matter what the party affiliation is. That’s very important.

C-S: Do you support the repeal of Act 77, or just overall the repeal of no-excuse absentee ballots that that law enabled?

NZ: Yes, I support the repeal of it. What I would do is look in more depth. That’s something that I want to set up a commission to look at a little bit more in more depth. 

C-S:  You’re an immigrant, you’re a Black man. Have these things come up, especially running in a Republican primary after former President Trump ran and talked a lot about immigration. He fed a lot of distrust of immigration. Have these things gotten in the way of your ability to campaign in the Republican primary?

NZ: Everybody in America — except for Native Americans — is an immigrant. Whether you’re first generation or 10th generation, you’re still an immigrant who are descendants of immigrants.

America is a land of immigrants, but like every nation on Earth, every sovereign nation, it has to protect its borders. I just can’t sashay into Sweden today, or northern Australia, or even Bulgaria at will. There are rules or laws that have to abided. So America is a sovereign nation, and we do have immigration laws that everyone on planet Earth who chooses to come here has to abide by.

I came here as an immigrant, legal immigrant, on a student visa. And then I chose the state and converted my visa status to permanent residence, and subsequently to citizenship, because I love this nation, and I wanted to make it my home. 

Therefore, I am all for legal immigration. Americans have great sanctuary for people who are oppressed, in various parts of the world, and even under those circumstances, entry to our country. In general, in our state of Pennsylvania in particular, it has to be through legal means. Therefore I am for legal immigration. And that’s what I was continuing to stand for.

C-S: But do you think that’s a harder pitch to make after President Trump ran campaigns that focused a lot on xenophobia, that focused on making people look like insiders and outsiders. Is it harder for you to talk to voters sometimes, even as a legal immigrant, about this topic?

NZ: That’s an excellent question. And it is my fundamental philosophical bent to always look forward. As a scientist and a doctor and a humanitarian … I tend to focus more on what I know and what I will do as a leader, and not distract my focus on concerns about other issues that had preceded, and decisions that preceded my candidacy.

I’m not sure how effective his stand was, or how … that stand will influence future decisions, but I know that as governor of Pennsylvania, I will continue to support legal immigration. I will continue to support legal immigration … 

… I mean, I’ve done thousands of open hearts and saved thousands of lives in America, with the teams that I’ve worked with, and I have been able to bring value, not just to my state to the country. That’s the type of immigration —  like, [I’m] not saying every immigrant should be a heart surgeon or a scientist, but we contribute in various ways. 

If you look at people like Andrew Carnegie, he was an immigrant from Scotland. So, as a land of immigrants, we welcome our immigrants but they need to come in on a legal basis.

C-S: One other thing that you mentioned on your website, you talked about education. How would the Zama administration tackle education in Pennsylvania?

NZ: I believe that every child in Pennsylvania, should get the opportunity to actualize their goals in life to be somebody to feel like there’s somebody, and contribute to the growth, the development, and every aspect of life in Pennsylvania. We live in a global economy. There’s no affirmative action in global commerce. Therefore, every child must be provided the resources and the opportunities.

… You see that the problem is something I call “zip code disease,” so how you perform is relative to what zip code [you are in], and it has to do with school funding. What would I do as governor — I am very much in support of school choice, very much in support of charter schools, and very much in support of tax credit scholarships to enable students to be able to attend the schools of their choice…

… Also the curriculum that our children have to learn in school, it’s extremely important that we make it robust and competitive. Now I’ve traveled throughout Europe … I traveled to China, and when I come home, and I see our curriculum, it has been watered down. And it’s a joke, where the stem courses are not emphasized as much as [they] used to be. 

So under my leadership, I will be sure that every child [from] elementary school…through 12th grade learns coding and financial management, and that every child gets the option of a technical vocational education. And so, this is the way you emancipate a child, mentally. The physical emancipation is not as powerful, but if a child is mentally emancipated, just like myself, they could better help themselves, help [their] community and help the world.

C-S: You mentioned you support school choice. You also mentioned the issue with zip codes. It’s in regions like the Poconos, where you’re from, and other parts of the state where there is this big problem of funding. The old funding formula emphasizes places that have lost population in Pennsylvania versus places that gained population in Pennsylvania, places like the Poconos. So is that also something that you’re thinking about, or, like why focus on school choice, not just funding?

NZ: As a doctor, every decision I make — for that decision to have value and meaning, it has to be patient-centered.

Unfortunately, a lot of leaders have made education crowd-centered, not individual-centered. The educational system in Pennsylvania, and the funding, must be student-centered. And therefore, the zip codes that have not been performing as well will have meaningful funding to have the resources they need to be performing on an excellent level.

And when you look at the whole concept of school choice, charter schools and so forth, that I’ve talked about — that’s a formula that gets the parents, the child’s parents [to put] skin in the game, become active participants…

…  My brother. Funding, for it to be effective, just like any pillar of life … it has to be performance- related. For us to compete on a global arena, [for] those kids … funding has to be performance- related…

… So, I think funding is not just throwing money and expecting an outcome. We have to measure the outcomes, as I would in every pillar of government, specifically in the educational system.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.