British-Egyptian doctor feels sense of duty to dispel Covid lies

Shocked by deaths at his London hospital, Dr Ahmed ElHaddad uses social media to offer medical advice

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Working in the heart of London as the Coronavirus crisis rages, Ahmed ElHaddad, an intensive care consultant for Imperial College Healthcare, has seen the full horror of the pandemic.

He has witnessed tragedy after tragedy on the ICU since patients began flooding in during the first wave of coronavirus last spring. Dr ElHaddad has seen a 150 per cent increase in patients compared with April 2020 at St Mary’s Hospital in London’s Paddington district. His team now cares for about 50 coronavirus patients a day with the hospital forced to create two more ICUs.

The hospital in which he works is on the northern fringe of Westminster, a borough with one of the highest concentration of Arabs in the UK.

"Being in an area that has a lot of patients with Middle Eastern backgrounds, of course, reflects on the groups of patients we have," Dr ElHaddad told The National.

"So we see a lot of patients from Middle Eastern backgrounds, a lot of Arab patients and a lot of patients from black and Asian minority ethnic groups. So it is a big worry. Yes, we have seen a lot of ethnic minority groups among our patients.”

The UK is on course for its target of vaccinating 15 million people by mid-February, with about 6.5 million people having received their first dose by Tuesday. However, recent data reveals that up to 72 per cent of black people and 26 per cent of non-white ethnic groups are unlikely to take the vaccine despite evidence showing that people from these communities are twice as likely to die from Covid-19.

A national lockdown, England's third of the pandemic, has been in place since January 5 but as the surge of cases continues the government has said restrictions will not be lifted any time soon.

Another 592 deaths were registered on Monday, pushing the UK very close to the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid-related deaths, one of the highest mortality rates in the world.

Dr ElHaddad said he could not have expected such a high death toll at the outside and believes ensuring enough people take the vaccine is the only way to end the pandemic.

He has taken to social media to highlight the issue, racking up hundreds of thousands of views in the process.

His first such post along these lines came following a particularly horrible shift during the UK’s first wave in mid-March. At the time, Egypt, from where the doctor hails, hadn't registered many Covid-19 cases. Dr ElHaddad and a colleague began worrying about the effect of the virus on their homeland.

“We both worked in Egypt in the two biggest university hospitals in Cairo," he said.

Dr Ahmed El Hadad, Egyptian ICU Consultant overseeing the team at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. Photographed for the National UAE alongside an interview about his work during the Covid 19 Pandemic. Location: Paddington Basin behind St Mary's Hospital.
Dr Ahmed ElHaddad, an ICU consultant overseeing a team at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London.  Rob Greig / The National

"So we know very well how the Egyptian system is and we know very well how crowded it is. So we're sitting having lunch and we say 'oh my god, if that happens in Cairo, this will be a human disaster. We need to go out and tell people in Egypt how horrible this is, they need to be prepared'.”

I think we owe it to people to spread the right information

Keen to spread the message in their homeland, the doctors relayed their advice in Arabic in a video posted on Facebook. It quickly went viral, with more than 775,000 views and 32,000 shares.

Dr ElHaddad, whose Facebook profile was private before the pandemic, soon garnered an audience of more than 24,000 followers. Now he regularly populates his page with videos and posts summarising the latest medical studies or treatments.

The profile has attracted plenty of engagement, as well as some abuse. “But I got also very encouraging feedback from people saying 'we really need this',” he said.

The bulk of his audience is in Egypt but he has received messages from people across the Arab-speaking community, including the UAE, Morocco and Yemen.

As well as providing colleagues with helpful information, he also feels a duty to dispel lies and misinformation surrounding the pandemic.

“Because if we don't, we'll just leave it for the false information or the harmful information," Dr ElHaddad said. "And if you're sitting there and you're not in healthcare, and you're sitting anywhere in the world, you're easily overwhelmed. And there's a flow of information right and left, much of it is wrong. And some people will need to go and check themselves, of course, but I think we owe it to people to spread the right information.”

This virus is just not going...the only exit from this is a vaccine that works

His posts even drew the attention of colleagues in London who asked if he would translate them into English.

“I'm Egyptian-British, I love both countries, and they're both my own. But the social media scene in the Middle East needs more information than in this country because things in the UK are much more organised. You see the prime minister talking every week with a scientist on the left and a scientist on the right, and they are very proper scientists.”

Misinformation and anti-vaccination campaigns are likely to affect the inoculation campaign but to the sceptics out there the doctor's message is clear.

“This virus is just not going, it's not going on its own, and you cannot just wait for a miracle that this virus goes, it's coming back, it's killing more people. So the only exit from this is a vaccine that works,” Dr ElHaddad said.

However, he acknowledges the confusion felt by many people.

“To the standard non-health care person this vaccine is rushed and is created in a hurry," he said. "I understand why they are worried. But what I was trying to promote on social media is that those vaccines have been through very robust studies. Many things maybe could have been fast tracked because there's a pandemic, and there's a lot of funding and a lot of support for those scientists developing the vaccine. But I don't think there has been any corner-cutting in those research studies.”

Egyptian Minister of Health Hala Zayed has previously said Egypt was expecting 40 million doses via the Gavi vaccine alliance, covering one fifth of the country's 100 million population.
She said on Sunday that the country had secured an additional 40 million vials from one producer and 20 million from a second source, without specifying their origin but bringing the total to 100 million doses.

Dr ElHaddad can’t wait to get himself and his family in Britain and Egypt vaccinated.

“I have no doubt that it is the safe thing to do. And it's the right thing to do. And I can't wait to have my parents vaccinated. I can't wait to have everyone I love safe by having the vaccine,” he said.


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