by Yipeng Ge
I feel like I have been holding my breath for the past 2-3 months with many personal and professional uncertainties, some of which have been related to COVID-19 developments in China/Italy and elsewhere around the world, and now also includes Canada. The past week has been a turbulent one in Canada – with many changes in the messaging from public health leaders and our federal/provincial leaders. I felt quite anxious and unnerved yesterday evening, and a phone call with my mother in Waterloo, Ontario and a few back-and-forth text messages with my father in Shenzhen, China and my brother in Hamilton, Ontario reassured me.
There is still much that makes me anxious and nervous and I am telling myself that this is okay – I hope you also take care of yourself, physically, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually.
It has been an unprecedented time in public health, healthcare response, and public safety lately. In Canada, there have been tremendous updates and changes in the past week alone, including recent recommendations to not leave Canada and for Canadians abroad to return while they can with commercial airlines.
Mid-week, a pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization on COVID-19 and swiftly many measures and recommendations in Canada were implemented by public health experts and leaders to ‘flatten the curve’ – with the intention of lowering the impact of COVID-19 on our healthcare systems with limited resources so that healthcare professionals on the frontlines can provide acute and intensive care to those that need it the most.
Only a week ago, I had the privilege of discussing global public health issues and topics with youth, students, and young professionals through my capacity as Canada’s youth delegate to WHO. I have also greatly enjoyed reading insights and ideas from those that have completed my consultation and engagement form.
Last weekend I met with the Co-Presidents of the Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research University of Waterloo Student Chapter, Kruti Patel and Vinussa Rameshshanker. We had a truly engaging and interesting discussion about the environment and health, primary health care, and public health education and training our future generation of leaders. One of the most special things we discussed was our collective acknowledgement of the social impacts on health and wellbeing, and collective action and collaboration from across all sectors to put value where it matters most.
I think a great summary of what the discussion highlighted is the importance of ‘Ubuntu’ in the work and practice that we do and want to see in public health and global health. ‘Ubuntu’ is a Nguni Bantu (South African language) term meaning “humanity” and is often translated into “I am because we are,” or “humanity towards others”. (Thank you for sharing this with me, Vinussa!)
I think of why public health matters so much to me, is this value and understanding that we are global citizens that ought to take care of one another and our communities’ most vulnerable peoples. I also think of the issue of COVID-19 and how we must collectively work together in all facets and sectors – to protect our communities, to give our healthcare professionals a fighting chance, to share knowledge and learn from countries and communities that have dealt effectively with COVID-19. We have gotten through public health emergencies in the past – and we will get through this one as well, together with strong hearts and minds.
The news of a pandemic with COVID-19 came to me mid-day during a collaborative meeting at the Global Strategy Lab at York University (Thank you to Steven Hoffman for hosting us!), between two major global health organizations in Canada (Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research and Canadian Society for International Health) discussing the potential amalgamation of these two organizations to unify a community for the voice of Canadian global health leaders/practitioners/researchers/trainees.
Little did I realize when I started that day, that this meeting would be the last in-person larger group meeting that I would have for likely the next few weeks, if not months. The agenda was packed. There was much to take away. However, in brief, what I will share at this time, is that Canadian youth, students, and young professionals will certainly be playing a vital role in the potential amalgamation of Canada’s unified global health organization.
I have always had many mixed feelings and emotions discussing the idea of ‘global health’ and ‘health equity’ despite often citing these ideas as driving and motivating factors for why I do what I do, and what keeps me going. Another core take-away for me is a continued and sustained acknowledgement for equity centred and equity informed work and practice in global health – that we must recognize the role that power and privilege play in a field of practice that seeks to tackle the world’s most challenging disparities. Also including the absolute need to acknowledge our own intersectional identity, biases, values, and unique worldview that we bring to the table.
I think about the complex issue of COVID-19 and the societal response to it globally. I heard early on, two months ago, the feelings and thoughts and experiences of my family members in Wuhan, China and other parts of China. What I heard was a stark contrast to the reality I felt in Canada and I also feel guilty that a sense of visceral concern and anxiety in myself did not present itself until the outbreak reached Canadian soil. When it gets personal, people act. In a globalized world, everything should be personal. I wondered why the global community did not react this way to climate change? Even though the impacts are severe.
I think this emphasizes more than ever – the importance not only of our public health and healthcare systems to protect and care for us, and in particular the most vulnerable populations in our communities but also noting that care should be based upon need. We must acknowledge our common humanity, that we are in this together as we are with many global issues, and that we are privileged to be in a country with a strong public health and healthcare response system.
I think of other countries and healthcare and public health systems that are less strong and one’s ability to survive and thrive may be different. This also presents as an example of what we can collectively accomplish together as a team – I am optimistic that this can set a precedent and example for what is possible (i.e. making meetings and healthcare more accessible with virtual technology, health promotion and good hygiene practices knowledge, political will to tackle the climate emergency, ensuring worker’s rights to a livable income and protections for time off work, and the list goes on…).
More than ever, I believe, that we need to practice compassion and empathy, that our intersectional identity is important to acknowledge and that issues like this can and will impact people in many different ways. We are all connected, we ought to live as global citizens, and we must work together.
There also exist many important issues whose focus and attention has been trumped by the attention of COVID-19, and I believe we will get back to these issues, but only after we come together as communities and find our common humanity to get past this. The strategy and public health recommendation of ‘social distancing’ has been surely disruptive and inconvenient for so many. Personal sacrifices and inconveniences have been made by many, and you are entitled to your feelings and emotions. However, I also think it is a good time to practice gratitude and recognize where our privileges are, and also think of strategies as an ally to ensure that disruptions do not make vulnerable populations even more disadvantaged.
I want to end this journal entry with this letter that my father shared with me this morning.
This is a letter addressed to my dad’s best friend and classmate (who took good care of my family and me when we vacationed in Italy last summer), who is Chinese but mostly lives and works in Italy. He is doing alright currently and staying home in his apartment in Italy. The letter is from an Italian neighbour in his building who he doesn’t actually know personally. It highlights the practice of gratitude in extraordinary times of difficulty, to assist one another as global citizens, to overcome an issue of global significance.
I am grateful for the citizens around the world that have self-isolated and are practicing social distancing. I am grateful for our public health experts and leaders working around the clock to provide recommendations and messaging to communities on how best to stay safe. I am grateful for journalists that are keeping us all updated and our leaders to account for their words and actions. I am grateful for health researchers that are working on biological solutions. I am grateful for frontline healthcare professionals that are caring for those that have gotten sick. I am grateful for business owners and workers that continue to make our food/water/medical supplies and other essential products available.
We need to recognize our common humanity, our mutual interdependence on each other’s wellbeing, and share stories of kindness – especially in these unprecedented times of a pandemic – but also, always and every day.
“Let hope be the antidote to fear.
Let solidarity be the antidote to blame.
Let our shared humanity be the antidote to our shared threat.”
- Dr. Tedros Adhanom, the Director-General of the World Health Organization
For Canadian updates on COVID-19: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection.html
Yipeng Ge is a Chinese-Canadian, global citizen, first-generation immigrant, lifelong learner, health advocate, and a humble and grateful guest of this land. He grew up in Waterloo, Ontario and completed his undergraduate studies at McMaster University in Health Sciences (Honours) with a specialization in Global Health. He is currently an M.D. Candidate at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine, and an incoming resident physician in public health and preventive medicine in Ottawa. He is Canada’s official youth delegate to the World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).