April 8, 2021Print | PDF
When COVID-19 began spreading globally in early 2020, Ahmad Firas Khalid started hearing from anxious friends and family members asking for his advice.
“A lot of people were very confused about what was going on in the world,” says Khalid, an instructor in the Department of Community Health at Wilfrid Laurier University.
As a medical doctor and health policy advisor, “my job was very clear to me early on. Every day I woke up and surveyed the evidence that existed on COVID-19, its implications and ways that we could stay safe. Then I would spend hours live streaming on Facebook and Instagram answering questions from anxious friends and family. That evolved into media outreach.”
Since then, Khalid has made more than 100 media appearances, helping to explain the latest COVID-19 developments to the public.
Much of your research has been about the necessity of sharing academic knowledge with the public. Why is that important?
Ahmad Firas Khalid: “It is my strong belief that when you have knowledge, you need to figure out a way to share it. In the context of COVID-19, evidence has been changing so quickly and the expectation that the public will keep up with the latest research is unrealistic. It’s the job of myself and my colleagues to find the most relevant, reliable evidence and simplify it for the public so they understand why certain interventions are being put forward, why face masks are now enforced when they previously weren’t, and so on.”
How has COVID-19 influenced your research focus?
AFK: “As we have seen this year, government officials are under a lot of pressure to make quick decisions and are held accountable for those decisions. Many of them want to consult high-quality evidence, but they don’t have the luxury to read a 50-page systematic review. I am currently investigating what an ideal template would look like to share information that supports real-time decision-making. The stakeholders we’ve interviewed so far say that they need short, easy-to-read evidence summaries with actionable checklists.”
How do experts and evidence inform government decisions?
AFK: “The nature of a crisis is that decisions require multiple inputs, research evidence being just one factor that helps inform action. There are many lessons that we’ve learned from this crisis and I hope that all levels of government use them for concrete action moving forward. We understand now that we need a much stronger public health infrastructure. We really need to look at our telehealth and telemedicine systems. We need to think about equity and how to care for our most vulnerable populations. I remember reporting on deaths in long-term care centres and being emotionally distraught because it was so difficult to be neutral, to talk about an issue that’s affecting all of us. The majority of the deaths due to COVID-19 have happened in long-term care facilities and that should not be the case.”
"I’ve been trying to give positive hope whenever possible. My job is not to make things brighter, but as experts we need to remember the mental health status of the public."
More than a year into this pandemic, what are you conscious of as you provide expert commentary?
AFK: “Recently I’ve been trying to give positive hope whenever possible. My job is not to make things brighter, but as experts we need to remember the mental health status of the public. People are really tired and it can be overwhelming to continuously hear negative news. So as experts in the media, we can contextualize information and foreshadow the good things that are coming in the future. Vaccinations, for example. Canada is taking a very aggressive stand trying to vaccinate as many Canadians as possible and I think that will pay dividends in the end.”