Interview by Celia Zhang, Digital Media Officer on Thursday, June 18, 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of strong health systems and of the health workers at the frontlines of those systems. It has also drastically impacted the daily lives of many Canadians, as people adapt to new physically-distanced realities in order to accommodate key public health and safety measures.
As a recent graduate of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine and the Youth Delegate for Canada at the first ever virtual World Health Assembly (WHA73), a forum where the world's highest health policies are set, Yipeng Ge is experiencing a unique intersection of the current realities of COVID-19.
Here, we chat with Yipeng about how it feels to be entering the medical field in the midst of a pandemic, his experience at the virtual WHA73 and what he thinks is needed for a just, equitable recovery from COVID-19.
What inspired you to pursue a career in global health?
It really goes back to some of the decisions that my parents made as Chinese immigrants. I was actually born in Wuhan, China where the COVID-19 outbreak started, which adds an interesting layer to my intersectional identity and puts everything that is going on in the world into context for me. As an immigrant child, I felt stuck between two worlds: I was a foreigner in Canada and also a foreigner in China. Knowing that my dad actually came from extreme poverty in rural China and that we still have relatives in better, yet still similar circumstances, I was very cognizant of the privilege afforded to me based on the decisions and sacrifices that my parents made to bring the family to Waterloo, Ontario.
When I started my undergraduate studies at McMaster University, I was exposed to the inequities and injustices faced by Indigenous communities in Canada. As I added more layers of information and knowledge to my own world view and understanding of the systems around me, I realized that I wanted to do something about it. This led me to learn from Indigenous scholars, clinicians, anthropologists, community leaders and even patients in Hamilton and Six Nations of the Grand River. I learned more about the healthcare system and how policy can have a large impact on a person’s wellbeing and health.
My undergraduate studies also exposed me to the concept of social determinants of health. I began to recognize that I took many things for granted growing up in Waterloo, like having a roof over my head, having food on the table, having a good relationship with my parents and a stable family income. It shifted how I thought about what makes someone well and healthy. These revelations were a turning point for me in deciding not only to pursue medicine as a career, but to also think about pursuing public health as a career.
You are starting your residency during COVID-19, which must be an exceptionally interesting and challenging time to be starting this next phase of your career. What is that like? How does a typical day look?
It most certainly is an exceptional time for so many different people. There is not a single person who has been untouched by the realities of COVID-19 and how the pandemic has unfolded. You either know someone who has been sick or has been impacted by the public health interventions that were put into place and their economic impacts. It is an interesting time for any person to be entering any field. It is also an interesting time to be a young person trying to learn about the world and where they fit into it.
On July 1st, I’ll be going back for one month clinical teaching rotations in the in-patient hospital wards. What does the day-to-day look like? I think the privilege and pleasure of being a student, a trainee or a young person right now is that your day-to-day can look very different. That’s what is very exciting about residency training--it’s an opportunity to learn how to adapt to whatever issue or obstacle that comes my way.
As this year’s Youth Delegate to the first-ever virtual World Health Assembly, can you tell us about some global health issues on the minds of Canadian youth?
It was certainly an interesting time to take on the role of the Youth Delegate for Canada to the World Health Assembly (WHA), as it was the first time that the Assembly has been held virtually. We were able to pivot the consultation process to think about global public health issues in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also an opportunity to stay socially connected and check-in with one another. Some of the things that were identified came from that kind of open discussion and we summarized the key priorities of Canadian youth in four different categories: individual wellbeing, prevention and preparedness, sustainable development and education and development. You can read a copy of the full report here.
What’s a piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
There is not a time where you feel like you’ve made it or done it. Sometimes I’m still trying to tell myself that. Go after your dreams and ambitions, but also ground that in the reality that you are always learning and gaining new information. Chasing after milestones can be quite time consuming, tiring and exhausting. You can’t delay happiness.
As a clinical learner, I share some really intense moments with patients who go through some really difficult things. It’s a really great reminder of how human we are and how fragile life is. With this pandemic, we have this collective reminder of what matters most: connection, humanity, wellbeing, health. I think it’s important to know what matters most and to intentionally prioritize that by making sure you spend time doing things that you love and with people that you care about.
COVID-19 has revealed gaps and inequities in health systems around the world. What are some key changes that need to be made within the sector to ensure a just, equitable recovery for all?
This is a tipping point. How do we create a more just and equitable world? I’m certainly no expert on all of the necessary pieces, but I think that the limiting factor is two-fold: the will of the people and the political will of our leaders need to be there for those changes to actually happen. We have community leaders, experts, scientists and researchers producing great recommendations and advocacy points for the direction we should take with policy, programming and funding. We really need collective action from the will of the people and our leaders need to be courageous and compassionate about the things that they hear and actually follow through with actions instead of just words.
What are you reading right now?
I am reading “The Right to be Cold” by Sheila Watt-Cloutier. I came across it a few days ago and I’ve always wanted to learn more about water and land protectors. Reading helps me feel like I’m taking a break from everything that is happening in the world but is also helpful with thinking through some really complex problems. These are not new problems. Indigenous communities, their governance and leadership and peoples have been aware of these issues for so long and have solutions and that has not changed, but perhaps the world is listening more now and hopefully willing to take more action.
What projects are next on your very busy agenda?
I’ve been told by my friends that I have a tendency to not sit still. Although I'm on “vacation” before residency starts, I’ve been starting a lot of projects. I have been doing more painting, cooking, reading, writing and gardening. I also recently had my first onboarding meeting with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) team as my role as the Youth Delegate for Canada to PAHO Directing Council. That’s something that I hope to ramp up in terms of engaging youth.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity*