Nov. 12 2020

Student Q&A: A Pandemic Story of Love and Activism

Around the world, countries have restricted travel to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Despite good intentions, in some cases, blunt policies separated couples and family members. Until recently, David Poon, a Canadian physician and student in the Columbia Mailman School Department of Health Policy and Management, was separated from his girlfriend who lives in Ireland. Recognizing that his situation was not unique, Poon put his public health skills to work, and after months of advocacy, successfully changed policy in Canada.

In late March, Poon and his girlfriend, Alexandria Aquino, created Faces of Advocacy to lobby the Canadian government to ease travel restrictions for committed couples and family members. Poon appeared on television to make his case, citing a survey he led that uncovered the mental health toll of these separations. A month ago, Canada changed its policy, and now tens of thousands of loved ones scattered around the world are now able to reunite. Transmission caught up with Poon to learn more.

You’ve said that Faces of Advocacy is inspired by a love story—your own. Please explain.

By the end of March, Canada had closed its borders to most non-citizens. We were told that [Alexandria] should be able to cross in given the proof of our relationship. But in April when she landed in Toronto, she was turned around and sent back. When I say love story, it refers to the love of family and love between partners. We learned of a Canadian woman who was about to give birth and her American partner could not come and see the birth of their own child. Another Canadian woman was diagnosed with thyroid cancer but her fiancé in the U.K. could not visit her.

These restrictions are more than just an inconvenience, right? Talk about the mental health survey you did.

Within about 36 hours, we did an intake of a thousand of our members using validated clinical screening tools. Before COVID-related travel restrictions, 16 percent of participants had suicidal self-harm thoughts. After the travel restrictions, it went up to 30 percent. Prior to the separations, 49 percent never had a mental health diagnosis. Afterward, we saw moderate-to-severe depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms at the 65 to 75 percent mark. It was clear that international travel restrictions took a significant mental health toll on separated loved ones.

It was clear that international travel restrictions took a significant mental health toll on separated loved ones.

Is there a risk that loosening these restrictions could lead to a spike in COVID cases?

There is a false dichotomy of “be with your family and everyone dies, or stay apart and everyone lives.” There is a third way to come in safely. We saw this when Canada allowed NHL players to come in and play hockey. And there were no documented travel-related COVID transmissions. I developed the Family Reunification Quarantine Plan to provide a way to safely come together after a 14-day quarantine. This is more or less the plan that is now in place.

Talk about your journey into public health.

I chose to live in Toronto because it is the city that fought SARS. I love New York because it is the city that fought COVID. And Mailman has been a leader in mental health and public health. Once COVID hit, that’s when I could really see that Mailman was the right place because New York was who had to face COVID bravely. The city is wonderful, with a diverse population. Plus superheroes all live there, and Peter Parker a.k.a. Spiderman even studied at Columbia!

What are you learning?

I never quite knew it until I started going to class here, but there is a sense of rebellion at Mailman. Public health isn’t just stats. That [spirit] meshed with the advocacy I’ve been doing. I was happily surprised to find a community of people who shared my drive to fight for change.

Our number one goal is to get people into Canada safely, including those left behind by exemptions in the new policy.

What’s next for you and Faces of Advocacy?

Despite our success in changing policy, the Canadian system has been challenged with processing and paperwork delays. Our number one goal is to get people into Canada safely, including those left behind by exemptions in the new policy. COVID is going to be around for a long time. This is the new normal. We need a good system to keep families together and safe. Our goal to make sure the new normal is safe and equitable for Canadian families and their foreign national loved ones.

How about you and Alexandria? What’s your status?

Alexandria and I landed in Toronto on Oct 31st! I am lucky that I have the privilege. I have the time and I have the ability because Mailman has been so good to allow us to do things online and I also have the resources to make it here. But a lot of people can’t, so we will continue to advocate for those who cannot.