May 27, 2020

Dr. Kelley Lee
Langara alumni Dr. Kelley Lee is a renowned global health researcher and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Global Health Governance in SFU's Faculty of Health Sciences. She recently sat down with Langara Alumni & Community Engagement to share her experience with the World Health Organization (WHO), their critical role in global health, and her work to fight COVID-19.

Thank you for sitting down with us. I have to admit I know very little about the WHO and the work they do. I know that you have worked with them on several projects. How did you get involved with the WHO?
From the start of my career to the present, I have had many opportunities to work with, as well as study the inner workings of, the World Health Organization. It is a complex organization with a remarkable history and uncertain future. Everyone values their own health but it is interesting how little people know about what this UN specialized agency actually does. My work over the years has been to to try to improve public understanding of WHO and contribute to efforts to ensure it works effectively.

What was your role there?
I have worked with WHO in several capacities, but I have never worked for WHO. I began studying WHO as a member of two project teams, funded by donor governments, during the 1990s. It was early in my career and I was lucky to have the opportunity to work with very experienced senior academics and policy makers. We analysed WHO’s budget in detail (something that is in the spotlight again) and the role of its country offices. I learned a lot about the importance of high-level politics in global health. I then began to work closely with specific WHO departments to conduct research on topics such as trade and health, globalization and infectious diseases, and tobacco control. This led to colleagues and I forming the WHO Collaborating Centre on Global Change and Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I led the centre for several years before moving back to BC.

What is your current role?
I joined Simon Fraser University in 2011 and am a Professor and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Global Health Governance in the Faculty of Health Sciences. In this role, I lead large research team to study the best ways societies can act collectively to manage health risks which are faced by all countries. Pandemics are perhaps the most obvious of these types of shared health risks. I also teach students about what is global health governance and why it is important.

How has COVID-19 impacted your personal and professional day-to-day?
Like everyone, my personal life has been completely turned upside down. I work from home, my husband continues to see patients as a family physician, and my two adult children are unemployed. Sadly, I cannot do what I dearly love which is play hockey several times a week. I play on several teams including a senior team that was supposed to compete this summer in the 55+ Canada Games. It is hard not to see my teammates and just get out on the ice with them.

On a professional level, I have suddenly shifted all my attention to COVID-19 research. Our team has been awarded two research grants so far and are chasing more in the coming months.  This means a lot of proposal writing with old and new collaborators across the world. It is both exciting and exhausting.  But I really want to be part of the effort to fight this pandemic rather than watch from the sidelines. My past study of WHO and global health governance puts me in an ideal place to contribute to the effort.

What are the common misconceptions about the COVID-19?
There is a lot of talk about COVID-19 being unprecedented and thus being difficult to prepare for. It is true that SARS-CoV-2 is a novel pathogen. However, a pandemic of this kind was long predicted and we should have been better prepared.  Most global health experts have been warning of this type of disease event for decades. Why we were all so poorly prepared, from the richest to the poorest countries, will need to be figured out in due course.  We cannot be caught out like this again.

The other misconception I would mention is the hope that a vaccine is going to save us all in due course. I hope this proves true but we also need to prepare for the vaccine taking a long time to come. Or even not at all. We don’t have vaccines for a lot of diseases – HIV/AIDs, malaria and even the common cold (which is a coronavirus). It would be wrong to just pin all our hopes on “magic bullets”.  We need to think about solutions in a broader sense, in terms of societal adaptations, as well as, about preventative measures for future pandemics. There will unfortunately be future pandemics. So this is a real wake up call and we need to create a new normal that reduces the risk of being caught out again.

What would you like the community to know about the role of the WHO, the Canadian response, and our local BCCDC?
I would like people to know that there are three main levels of government response to the COVID-19 pandemic ideally working together in unison to protect all of us. In BC, we are fortunate to be one of three provinces with a dedicated government agency for disease control. The Public Health Agency of Canada plays this role at the national level. Both were formed after our experience with SARS and how they’ve operated has a lot to do with how Canada has fared compared to the US.

At the global level, we have the WHO. I know that WHO has received criticism from some directions in recent weeks and we shall see, in time, what could have been done better. But it is also important to recognize that WHO forms that critical layer of pandemic response across 194 countries. It is largely staffed by health care professionals and scientists who are working extremely hard to collect and share information, provide clinical guidelines and support research on vaccines and treatments. WHO staff are providing support to frontline health care workers throughout the world. For this reason, I think they also deserve a clap or two of acknowledgement from all of us.

How is this pandemic changing the way we think about infectious diseases?
After smallpox was eradicated in the late 1970s, and there was a decline in infections generally during the twentieth century due to the use of antibiotics, vaccines and other advances, there was a feeling that somehow the era of infectious diseases was behind us. We were very wrong. The acceleration of economic globalization, population growth, increased income inequalities and, importantly, human-induced impacts on the environment have caused a resurgence of infectious diseases. Not only known diseases but novel pathogens such as this coronavirus. I think there has been complacency in wealthier countries that somehow we are protected from this resurgence, that it is a problem of the developing world. We were wrong.

What are the learnings that are coming out of this experience?
COVID-19 is teaching us, not only that infectious diseases are a global risk, but that we have made ourselves vulnerable by how we have configured our societies. There are so many things to reflect on – our lack of investment in public health and health care systems from local to global; the quality of our political leaders; the role of the media; our damage to the natural environment; the importance of connecting to our communities; the need to pay attention to the most vulnerable in our societies and so on. There are opportunities to reflect deeply on so many aspects of how we live our lives.

What advice would you give students interested in global health as a career?
My advice is that, after this pandemic, like after SARS, there will be a surge in interest in this field. And rightfully so. We have all had a direct and personal lesson in the need to invest more in building the institutions, scientific knowledge, skilled workforce, and mechanisms of cooperation that protect and promote population health. There is no shortage of university courses and programs to train people to meet these needs. But I would also add that you don’t have to earn a degree related to global health to make an important contribution.

What this pandemic has taught us is that our society is interconnected – environment, education, transport, trade and finance and so on – all impact and are impacted by population health. And that our societies are interconnected with other societies. We have a big job ahead of us, to rebuild healthier societies from the ground up, and to rebuild our connections with healthier societies worldwide. So we need all hands on deck. Whatever career path you chose, whatever profession you end up pursuing, I hope students remain aware of how their future work might help or hinder this cause.

What’s your best memory of Langara?
My best memory of Langara is being given the feeling of possibilities opening up for me. My final years of secondary school in east Vancouver during the late 1970s were really tough. Our single-parent family was living on welfare in social housing, I was isolated and acting out at school, and graduation was a merciful release.  Most graduates were excited about the future. I didn’t see mine. 

I remember that summer being told by our social worker that I was no longer eligible for social assistance unless I was unemployed. At the time, post-secondary education was deemed employment. Despite this, I chose to attend Langara full-time and was duly cut off. It was a very tough year but the right decision. I scraped together the tuition and then worked hard at my five courses plus 20 hours a week at minimum wage. Most importantly, Langara gave me a confidence in myself that I sorely needed. It was at Langara that I began to see that I had a future.

Thank you so much sharing your story. Good luck with you projects. I look forward to hearing how it goes.

For more interviews given by Dr. Lee or about her reserach: