The COVID-19 outbreak, as seen from a Global Health student's perspective

Written by Elise Garton, a second-year RMGH student from Minnesota, USA. Her internship is an Amsterdam Public Health-funded collaboration between the Athena Institute, UMC-Amsterdam, the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development, and Gentest Institute in Turkey. Her research aims to develop and pilot a health monitoring framework for Gentest’s implementation of an innovating primary care model.

When I flew to Istanbul in late February to begin my second-year global health internship, I'm a bit embarrassed to say that I was not thinking about COVID-19 at all. I was excited to live in a new country, learn new research skills, and get closer to graduation. Within a few short weeks it became clear that the world had completely changed, and so would my experience in Istanbul as well as my priorities as a Global Health student and researcher.

I completed my first-year internship at 510, an initiative of the Netherlands Red Cross, whose core tenet is to always prioritise disasters. So, although my second-year internship was unrelated to COVID-19, I adopted this mindset from the previous year and immediately shifted focus for the first few weeks of the pandemic. My supervisor at Gentest, Dr. Serdar Savas, previously worked at the WHO and Turkey Ministry of Health and remains an influential figure in Turkish public health. He became involved in communication and policy recommendations in Turkey and was invited to share this information from a health and social perspective on several television programs. I helped him prepare by collecting data about current cases, deaths, testing, and social distancing measures in Turkey and other countries, comparing trends between countries, visualizing this data for different potential audiences, reviewing recent publications, and reviewing and applying several common prediction models to the Turkish context.

I am able to critically engage with the massive amounts of information about COVID-19 from the news, social media, our governments, and scientific publications and discern what is most pertinent and trustworthy.

My internship at 510 focused on infectious disease surveillance, so while I had a good understanding of how to collect and analyse COVID-19 data and prediction models, I also knew how inaccurate and unreliable they were likely to be. A first-year course on International Comparisons of Health Systems and my bachelor’s degree in political science helped me recognise both the value and the pitfalls of comparing disease progression and government response across countries. Lastly, my first exposure to epidemiology in this master’s programme only 1.5 years earlier made me keenly aware of how difficult it was for a layperson – or, for example, a Turkish television watcher – to understand many of the concepts shared about COVID-19 cases and deaths. These dualities were frustrating: on the one hand, I found it very challenging to identify and communicate “truths” about COVID-19, and I didn't want to facilitate the spread of misinformation or venture beyond my scope of expertise as a global health student. On the other hand, I recognised that even my limited experience made me more qualified to assess this data and information than many people, and that it was my responsibility to use that experience when it could benefit others.

This pandemic has diverse effects on different countries, industries, and populations.

Since I have left Istanbul due to COVID-19, I am finishing my internship remotely, and have helped create the “COVID-19 Happy Hour Journal Club”, an opportunity for RMGH students to discuss and debate research on the pandemic from different disciplines. I don’t claim any expertise about the disease itself or how we should respond to it, but I’m able to critically engage with the massive amounts of information about COVID-19 from the news, social media, our governments, and scientific publications and discern what is most pertinent and trustworthy. Because I’ve worked with students and faculty from diverse academic backgrounds as part of the global health programme, I find that I’m also more aware of the diverse effects this pandemic has on different countries, industries, and populations. I feel fortunate to have studied global health and have the opportunity to learn from both my research and this pandemic, and hope I can use that learning to help others now and in the future.