June 23, 2020

Reflect: Summer Week 5 and 6

Reflect: Summer Week 5 and 6

Hey there! Welcome to another reflection piece, which is part of a series of short articles I write to keep myself accountable in Summer 2020. Every one to two weeks, I share about the stuff I’ve done, several interesting ideas I’ve come across, and a personal reflection on what I’d like to do better in the coming weeks.

What did I accomplish?

Website stuff. I published my first article on antimicrobial resistance (AMR)- a personal milestone! I’ve gotten some feedback too so it definitely still needs some fine-tuning. If I had to break down the time spent on this article:

  • 12h on research
  • 9h on writing
  • 5h illustrating
  • Total: 26h, or 8 deep-work sessions, or roughly 1.5 weeks per article.

I can get three digital illustrations done within an hour if I have a draft sketch ready. I usually sketch out some drafts either (1) when I am writing or (2) when I’m done with the article’s general outline. As with anything, I’ll get faster with practice. That aside, I also started consolidating research on a long-form article or a page I want to put together. I want this project to teach secondary school students about AMR. It will become my pet project for the next two weeks.

Laidlaw research project. I’ve been working on two things. First, I compiled a list of important academics and research networks working on AMR in Asia. This list will be used to shortlist actors for the analysis’s seed list. It has been heartening to learn about the dedication many academics have to resolving the AMR problem.

Second, I’m in charge of documenting the project’s research methodology as it progresses. As of now, I have written on a detailed breakdown of the project’s situational analysis, literature review and seed list compilation process. While this process of documentation is meant to prepare our manuscripts for publication, it serves another key function: it improves/ strengthens/ enhances the project. As I write, I find myself questioning aspects of the project, be it the feasibility of its scope or the strength of its methodology. What follows is yet another flurry of research to justify or modify our current methods, which then strengthens our overall approach. Documentation (just like writing these reflection pieces) facilitates a research project’s iterative process in a way that pilot tests do not.

A benefit of working with the team is getting to read valuable reference material, especially materials that they have previously worked on. Having the opportunity to learn from a team of mentors means I get to learn from other projects too! How exciting! Moving on, I will be working on the theoretical foundations behind social network analysis and in-depth interviews as well as outline how they will be applied in my project.

What has COVID-19 taught us global collaboration?

The next few paragraphs are some lessons I learned from this webinar series titled ‘The Science and Business of COVID-19 Webinar Series’. It was organised by the SingHealth Duke-NUS Global Health Institute (SDGHI), Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health (SSHSPH) and the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Singapore.

Scientific collaboration. It took a public health crisis of this scale has been to rally academics and big pharma together. Academics are abandoning secrecy that was so prevalent in medical science research and bypassing journal articles for online repositories to share their latest findings with the world as fast as possible. These previously competitive stakeholders have joined hands in a great display of global solidarity against a common enemy: a biological threat that threatens severe loss of lives in all parts of the globe. While we can’t ignore the economic incentives that may have facilitated such progress, we must appreciate that collaboration at such intensity and scale can do wonders for COVID-19 research: reducing effort duplication, pooling of resources and sharing of best practices. It was during this crisis that I witnessed the massive amount of information whizzing about among academics on my own Twitter feed. This information, direct from individuals at the frontlines, were often unreported in the news yet. As governments kept mum about the severity of the crisis, scientists flooded the platform to share or receive the latest findings.

Now that we’ve seen and reaped the benefits of extensive global collaboration on the academic front, I hope this spirit of collaboration continues to burn brightly. And we can support this spirit by investing heavily in a global collaborative platform designed to facilitate research collaborations at a global scale.

Nationalist tendencies. The same solidarity is not seen among national leaders from high-income countries (HICs) and low-to-middle-income countries (LMICs). There is no scramble for collaboration among nations as leaders struggle to contain the virus within their own borders. While disparities clearly exist between nations, the pandemic has revealed the fault lines that exist within nations-and painted them an alarming red. As the virus rages throughout populations, marginalised groups are hit the hardest: African Americans in America, the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups in Britain and migrant workers residing in dormitories in Singapore. In dealing with a new threat, coupled with allaying the concerns of domestic populations, it is no surprise that national leaders have their hands full with quelling the virus domestically. Calls for national unity are stronger than ever, exacerbating a longstanding trend for countries to turn inwards.

Such nationalist moves by HICs would not bode well for LMICs, for they are set to shoulder the devastating brunt of the pandemic’s impact. Although they are experiencing a pandemic with lower levels of infectiousness (attributed to having a younger population and a lower proportion of elderly), they still have much to worry about:

  • Low-resource settings make maintaining infection prevention controls difficult.
  • Ever since their resources have been redirected to contain COVID-19, we as a global community risk reversing decades of progress. Many of the following programmes have been stopped to free resources for the pandemic: vaccination for measles and polio, AIDS clinics, maternal and child health programmes etc.
  • This halt on developmental programmes will have severe spillover effects that will exert greater long-term health and economic consequences than COVID-19.

Vaccines. At the time of the webinar, there were more than 100 different vaccines candidates in the pipeline. Some are still in development, while others are undergoing clinical trials. The good news is that we don’t need a perfect vaccine. An imperfect or ‘leaky’ vaccine that can reduce COVID-19’s severity or infectiousness by say, 50% would already bring huge benefits.

Yet, some challenges remain. And here are some questions to ponder about:

  • How can we mass-produce the vaccine without affecting other vaccine assembly lines? After all, these other vaccines are key to maintaining public health as well. We do not need a sudden measles outbreak as we are busy combating the current one.
  • How should the vaccines be distributed? Who’s going to pay for it? Should they be given to high-risk populations (elderly and healthcare workers) or to those that can pay for it and then fund the rest of the vaccine pipeline?
  • Many countries are working on a vaccine simultaneously. Since the vaccine can be deemed a global public good, I wonder how it will be distributed when the time comes. Take the Singaporean team currently working on a COVID-19 vaccine. If it happens to be successful, would the vaccine be distributed to Singaporeans first? After all, upon successful development, the country’s patented N95 masks (arguably as essential as vaccines) were distributed to Singaporeans and PRs only. Or would the vaccines be sent off for mass manufacture to be distributed to high-risk groups around the world?

As the virus rages on in Europe and the Americas, Singapore just started its economic re-opening. Looking at China and South Korea’s second waves, I expect the same to happen here at home too. Still, the news of the re-opening has offered great respite to everyone in the country. I myself relish in being able to meet friends and relatives again, while practising social distancing, of course 🙂

What I can do better in Week 7

  • A combination of poor sleep and conflict with some loved ones made work difficult. In order to avoid any form of conflict, I shut myself away, seeking sought solace in re-reading some Harry Potter. I am still learning how to confront my problems directly, for running away doesn’t help anybody. As it turns out, talking it out with my loved ones relieved a heavy weight off my shoulders- and made work infinitely easier. So let’s sleep earlier and try to resolve whatever’s bothering you as soon as possible.

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading 🙂

Other thoughts

School results. I did surprisingly well for a semester I didn’t enjoy. I looked at my results and felt not pride, but anger. Anger at how my grades cannot capture the extent of my learning or the hours of hard work. Personally, I think the educational system is broken- I would learn far more through an apprenticeship-based model of learning. Feelings of anger were soon replaced by a begrudging relief and resignation (which happens every time I get my results). If anything, I’d be well-placed (for now) to get into a public health masters programme and maybe even be primed for a scholarship.

Summer midway point. I realised I haven’t got long before summer ends. I gotta pull my socks up. As the new semester nears, I still haven’t figured out what I’d like to do in the coming semester. Maybe I’ll help organise a Mapathon event together with Doctors without Borders.

The little things. I am thankful for having tried the most delicious chocolate brownie ever, receiving mail and meals with loved ones.

Personal peak moment.: I had the luxury of entering a state of complete peace from mind. This precious hour came after an intense 40 minutes of Morning Pages and losing myself in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

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