Dr. Andrew Johnson is an Infectious Disease Specialist and long-serving Board Member with Compassion Canada. We recently connected with him for a feature in our Annual Report, to learn more about his outlook on medicine and development work in a world impacted by COVID-19.
Compassion Canada: For people who are meeting you for the first time through this interview, what are the top three things you’d like them to know about who you are and what you do?
Andrew Johnson: I love the work of Compassion, its focus on child development and its support of the local church.
I work as an Infectious Disease Specialist but also trained in Medical Microbiology followed by a Clinical Virology fellowship. SARS-CoV-2 isn’t my first rodeo (I was around for SARS-CoV-1 too).
I strive to understand how the world works, how the mission of Compassion is impacted and to bring this perspective to the board table (health and disease, macroeconomics, geopolitics). I spend a lot of time thinking about human behaviour, and how global systems are plumbed. You can always count on a non-consensus opinion.
CC: How long have you served on Compassion Canada’s Board and what drew you to the role?
AJ: I have served on the Compassion Canada Board since 2009. My wife, Nicole, and I have sponsored children through Compassion since 1994. When I left the University of Washington in 2005 to return to Canada, Ian Lawson (our out-going board chair) saw me on the CTV evening news, and he tracked me down for coffee (I used to be Ian’s teaching assistant many years ago at Briercrest Bible College). Several years later, Ian approached me to consider a board position, and the rest is history.
CC: Rumour has it that you pay close attention to the world of economics. What does a typical day in your life look like?
AJ: Guilty. What does it look like? A lot of reading. And long-form interviews and discussions. And analysis. And synthesis. And hypothesis testing.
What does it not look like? I don’t watch the news (those who don’t watch mainstream media are uninformed, those who do are misinformed – Sam Clemens I think) and I avoid social media echo chambers like the plague (no pun intended).
My original intent was to pursue an economics degree and then an MBA. Medicine happened along the way, but it never extinguished my interest. Macroeconomics can tell you a lot about how the global system is plumbed and helps you to wrap probabilities around likely outcomes, and fat tail events. Unhelpful economic policy drives so much of the income inequality within, and between nations, and has a direct bearing on issues related to poverty, inequity and social disruption.
CC: With your wide array of interests, what led you into medicine and to the study of Infectious Diseases?
AJ: Medicine was never part of the plan. Medicine was something I applied to on a whim and didn’t actually expect to get in. When the offer came, I accepted without much thought, and my youth was lost forever.
After medical school, I pursued Internal Medicine as a specialty, because it provided flexibility for subspecialty training. I still had no idea what I wanted to do. As training progressed, I became interested in Haematology and stem cell transplantation. In truth, I spent most of my time treating infections in transplantation. Many of these infections were viral and explains the subsequent Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology training and the Clinical Virology fellowship which came later. I wish there was a shorter answer, but it’s hard to condense 12 years into a paragraph.
CC: As the world reels from the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, what concerns do you have for the children and families we serve living in extreme poverty as the world starts to “phase out” of lockdown and how do you see Compassion addressing those concerns?
AJ: COVID-19 in the developing world is an unmitigated disaster. Prior to COVID-19, much of the world was already entering economic recession, and there was a clear trend towards de-globalization and increasing nationalism everywhere. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these trends.
Those living in poverty don’t have the resources to prevent the spread of disease. Access to testing may be non-existent, and mortality rates soar when appropriate medical care is lacking. Multiple generations may live in the same household, leaving the elderly at particular risk. Without reliable electricity, internet or a computer, there is no option to work from home, but few, if any, are doing this type of work anyway. Day-labourers and those providing services do high-contact work that exposes them to the virus constantly, but this assumes there is even any work to do. Food insecurity is ever-present. The suffering continues unseen.
Until there is an effective vaccine, opening up economies will result in increased viral transmission, because nothing about the virus has changed. Compassion has effectively re-oriented in this environment to address the most pressing needs identified by our frontline church partners, whether related to food security, medical care or disease prevention.
CC: COVID-19 is the great equalizer between people in low-income and high-income economies. What long-term changes do you anticipate in the world of medicine and finance as a result?
AJ: While COVID-19 can affect anyone of any demographic, the brunt of the morbidity and mortality is borne by those who are economically and socially disadvantaged. This is clearly seen within countries (including G7 countries), but also between nations.
Long-term changes that I think will stick:
- The rise of telemedicine.
- Most medical care will increasingly be pushed out of the hospital and into the community.
- Digital technology to aid routine medical care (apps, electronic medical records with privacy restrictions controlled by the patient, artificial intelligence assists).
- Restructuring of the Public Health System (Internationally, WHO, and nationally).
- Globalization has been thrown into reverse and will undo the progress made in alleviating extreme poverty that began with the Thatcher/Regan era. Economic policy will be increasingly used as a weapon in geopolitics. Countries will tend toward self-sufficiency at the expense of efficiency (less trade). This will challenge child development activities in some places and open up opportunities in others.
- As central banks and governments across the world debase (with both fiscal and monetary policy misadventures), the role of sound money will become apparent to citizens, but politicians won’t allow a departure from fiat. Gold is always an answer, but Crypto and the “defi”(definance) movement will dominate the economy of our children and grandchildren.
- Work from home isn’t going away anytime soon (maybe never). Think technology, home improvement, suburban and rural residential real estate, utilities, consumer staples. No one will leave the house for anything that can be delivered.
CC: Where have you travelled with Compassion and what is a highlight from your travels?
AJ: I’ve travelled to:
- Colorado Springs (Compassion International headquarters).
- Thailand (meeting one of our Compassion kids but also so many impressive people we met. This trip taught me how dedicated, skilled and talented our frontline church partners really are).
- Peru (meeting one of our sponsored kids, meeting another we subsequently sponsored, and a side trip to Machu Picchu and Cuzco).
- Nicaragua twice (visiting a Compassion Centre in Leon both times, and the second time there with the board. Again, the quality, dedication and character of the trip leaders, translators, country office director and frontline church partners were really impressive).
CC: What’s one thing the lockdown, due to COVID-19, taught you about yourself or your faith?
AJ: My daily routines never actually changed that much, and so it has not been as difficult as I thought it might be. I’m thankful that I’ve never had a spirit of fear or dread through this time. Along with all of my co-workers, we train and we go about our activities with confidence. Control is an illusion, and everything is in God’s hands.
CC: What’s one thing that excites you about Compassion’s work as we lean into the future?
AJ: Change always produces opportunity. In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Compassion to bring future plans into the present. We have a leadership team that has embraced this challenge and is moving forward, and I’m excited.
This interview is part of a series featuring the talent and wisdom of Compassion Canada’s Board of Directors, portions of which first appeared in our Annual Report.