As an Armenian and Canadian working at the World Health Organization, Yerevan State Medical University graduate and visiting professor, dentist, public health manager, professor, statesman and politician Garry Aslanyan feels proud of his little team’s work, knowing that it saves lives every day.
Dr. Aslanyan is currently the Manager of Partnerships and Governance at the World Health Organization (WHO) Special Programme on Research and Training on Tropical Diseases in Geneva, Switzerland. Prior to joining the WHO, Dr. Aslanyan was federal public servant working with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the Department Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) in Ottawa. Now he is:
Dr. Aslanyan, let us start with your decision to become a doctor. How did it happen? Was that your dream?
This was not a very difficult decision for me to make. My mother and grandmother from my father’s side both worked in the health care. I also had a chance to work at a hospital since I was young – it really confirmed my choice. I continued to work at a hospital while I was studying at YSMU, which provided me with a chance to understand the ins and outs of the health system, but most importantly understand people. I think that experience played an important role in my future choice of focusing on public’s health, where I felt that the health of the individual was predicated on the health of the overall society, be that economic and political life, rather than only health care system.
What kind of difficulties does a doctor face, in general, and a dentist, in particular?
Health professionals face number of difficulties, but they also have a lot of opportunities. In general, being a doctor, nurse or dentist requires a commitment to a lifelong learning, because so much of our knowledge of science changes. But this also comes with an opportunity as during their careers, doctors, dentists, nurses see how they can help the patients in a better way, using new tools. This is extremely gratifying feeling, which makes the health professionals thrive in any society.
What privileges do you enjoy being a doctor?
Doctors or any other health professionals have a good perception in the society, as they are seen as people who use knowledge and skills to make populations have longer and healthier lives. This is probably one of the aspects that are quite similar across cultures and countries. Having worked in Canada, South Africa, India, Switzerland, Brazil and many other countries, I have seen this similarity. But this also comes with higher expectations from the doctor, to be able to do their best, which may not be quite the same with other professions.
Please, tell a little bit about your career ladder. I know it will take a long time as your achievements are very much, but, anyway, I would like to ask you to mention them shortly if it is possible.
My career has not be anything that I would have imagined. As I mentioned, I have decided to study public health after graduating from the YSMU. This was also the same time, when I moved to Canada. I was fortunate because my work in Canada exposed me to various levels of Canada’s system, which is quite complex as provinces and municipalities as well as federal government, played a role. I continued to study, but this time I focused on political science and policy, as it relates to health. I have also volunteered with a provincial public health association in Ontario, the Ontario Public Health Association, which allowed me to learn and then help with advocacy for public health in the province. These are not usual skills that we expect a health professional have. But health is political, everywhere. I eventually became the President of that Association, in fact that was during interesting times of global spread of SARS and how Canada and Ontario dealt with it. It gave me an opportunity to work with the provincial Minister of Health, provincial Chief Medical Officer and others as we embarked on the reforms of the public health system in Ontario. Looking back 17 years, I can see how certain things we have proposed or done then have helped us deal with COVID-19 today. During this time, I have also been doing various short terms consultancies focused on global health, which took me to Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Bulgaria and other countries. I suppose that was the reason that I got a position with the federal government in Ottawa, working for what is now called Global Affairs Canada, in its section of global health. This was an ideal mix for my skills. From one side I was able to use my health expertise, but from the other side I was also able to use my policy-making skills, which a position at federal government requires. During the years of my work with Global Affairs Canada, I was able to help development of many programs that Canada was engaged globally in health. I was able to advise Ministers of Health or Finance, in their negotiations at different forums, such as G7 or WHO or other international organizations. Canada was leading global effort in polio eradication or support for immunization in low and middle-income countries, focused on elimination of many infectious diseases, particularly in Africa, or establishing public health systems in Latin America or Asia. Having been able to use my skills to help Canada put its resources for good use has been a privilege. I have then been recruited by the WHO, where I work in a program that focuses on research and training for infectious diseases. My program is small, we are based in Geneva, but we work with many countries and institutions around the globe, I think last year we have worked with or supported around 900 different individuals. With COVID-19, the way we work changed. The WHO country offices are working directly with governments, ministries of health and other public health agencies, providing critical support to ensure countries can rely on the WHO’s guidance to mitigate the risks of this pandemic. Certain projects are paused as our focus has shifted to the immediate needs caused by COVID-19. It is the goal of my program to accelerate desperately needed COVID-19 research in those areas where the virus could wreak havoc on already-fragile health systems and cause the greatest health impact on vulnerable populations. As a Canadian and Armenian working at the WHO, I feel proud of our work, knowing that it saves lives every day.
How does Canada fight the new coronavirus (COVID-19)? From your point of view, what are the most effective measures for the struggle against it? Could you mention any state or states that effectively struggle and prevent its spread?
As I don’t live in Canada at the moment, my understanding of how the fight is going or has gone is from what I read. Canada had the experience of SARS, 17 years ago. In a way, it helped Canada to change many things in its public health system, because SARS exposed a lot of problems. But a lot still needs to be done. Canada is a big country with provinces who have responsibility for health care, it is a challenge to ensure all parts of the system work smoothly in the entire country, but I think the results have been positive, the number of death has not been as high as they could have been.
There are countries who have done remarkably well, for example Vietnam or New Zealand, however, it is not useful to compare countries and say one is better than the other. Each country has its unique context, culture, governance of the system and proximity to other countries. These factors do play a role. But the main public health approaches are the same, so if done timely and correctly, they should all help reduce the spread of the virus and prevent unnecessary deaths.
What about Armenia’s struggle against COVID-19?
As the number of cases is not going down, it is very alarming. Many of us in public health call this pandemic an “infodemic”. While the health authorities and leadership of Armenia focused on the problem early on and put necessary resources, it seems “infodemic”, has helped to misinform the population, who in turn didn’t recognize the gravity of the situation, if correct public health measures have not been followed. This is disappointing, of course, but lessons could be learned from this as well. For example, the public health system and the YSMU could increase their engagement in making sure that advice and decisions made are based fully on strong evidence. This is relevant not just for COVID-19, but for other parts of the health system. As a result of this experience, Armenia may emerge as a country where decisions related to health or wellbeing are based on strong evidence rather than rumor or expert opinion. I also hope that pandemic will lead to serious discussions about universal health coverage and Armenia will introduce universal health care for all of its citizens.
Doctor, do you manage to relax? What are your hobbies?
Walks and hikes in the mountains is something I like to do. My father was a paleontologist, he would take me with him to expeditions in the Armenian mountains, and I now have the fortune of living next to Swiss Alps. I also like to cook or bake, especially focusing on new recipes from around the world. I do try to make Armenian dishes, but only when I have time – Armenian dishes are good but they are very labor intensive. Lastly, while it’s not really a hobby, I continue to improve my language skills. As I learned French and Portuguese in addition to English, Armenian and Russian, there is always a way to work on language skills and practice them with speakers of those languages.
Are you planning to visit Armenia in the future?
I hope to visit from time to time. Most importantly, I hope to maintain networks with colleagues in Armenia and explore opportunity for potential new projects.
As an experienced doctor with a rich professional path, what advice would you give to future doctors?
My main advice is to have an open mind about things and learn every day. In the age when information is flowing with easy around the world, this is a great time to be a doctor. At the same time, it is also dangerous time because the information may or may not be correct. Hence, any future doctor should be equipped with skills that allow them to analyze the information and make “sounds’ choices”, when it comes to their day-to-day practice.
Author: Tatevik Ghazaryan