Abdel Meguid Kassem is committed to strengthening health systems in Africa and also conducts research on Covid-19. The Egyptian gastroenterologist is closely associated with the DAAD.
Professor Kassem, what made you decide to study medicine?
Medicine is a fascinating professional field because it combines the natural and social sciences. Both can be applied to health, to the well-being of the individual – that appealed to me.
Is that what still drives you today?
Yes, I’m a passionate doctor and researcher, to this day. But the job has its hardships, because you work a lot and have long hours. You need the right motivation; you have to love the job, otherwise it’s torture. Fortunately for me, it’s a passion and a way of life, because I actually see medicine as a hobby.
A long time ago you received a DAAD scholarship in Germany. How did that happen?
The first contact with the DAAD came during my university studies in the 1980s. I had a short-term scholarship that enabled me to work in a lab in Münster during the semester break. Later I got an advanced scholarship for a stay in Munich, where I practiced medicine and did research. It was a new, interesting and exciting world for me. In fact, it was the enrichment of my life, personally and professionally.
What exactly did you do in Munich?
I was there for my PhD, did gastroenterological studies at the University Hospital of the TU Munich – on gastroscopy, colonoscopy, the visualization of the biliary tract and so on. Back then, Munich was world famous for endoscopy. There were many visiting doctors from different corners of the world. This enabled me to build up an international network that has grown over the years and from which I still benefit today.
How long were you there for?
Two years, but the contact never ceased. We’ve continued to carry out joint projects, also together with researchers from other countries such as Tunisia and Morocco.
Nevertheless, you decided to go back to Egypt. Surely you could have had an easier and more convenient life in Munich?
In fact, I did receive an offer. The conditions were very good, it would actually have been a dream job. But I wanted to make a difference, to build something in Cairo, because there was a lot of room for improvement. So I decided to return.
Then you didn’t contribute to the “brain drain” like so many academics who study in Western countries ...
I prefer the word “brain circulation”, because science lives from movement and exchange. To master global health problems, we need as much experience and knowledge as possible. Doctors in Egypt are confronted with patients and diseases completely different from those a doctor in Germany has to treat. Here, for example, we see 20 to 30 cases of liver diseases such as hepatitis B or hepatitis C every day; in Germany you might have this number in a month. On the other hand, there are more diseases of the pancreas in Germany. That’s why we urgently need international exchange.
You recently joined an international group of experts on Covid-19. What does it do?
I’ve had a lot to do with infectious diseases in my life and I’m also engaged in various research projects on Covid-19. This is one of the reasons I was appointed to the InterAcademy Partnership group in August 2020. It includes 60 scientists from all over the world. We’ve set ourselves ambitious goals: we promote evidence-based decisions in connection with the pandemic and hope in this way to be able to influence institutions and governments.
Do you see a connection between your work and the SDGs?
I see many connections, not just to SDG 3. Health is a cross-cutting issue: without health there’s no economy, no science, no education, more poverty. It’s a premise for overall successful development. Health has been taken for granted for far too long, especially in the richer countries. The pandemic has clearly shown that this isn’t the right stance.
Do you think we have the virus under control now?
I don’t want to venture a forecast on this yet, because the course of the pandemic depends heavily on how we behave and what decisions politicians make. But I can say this much: in retrospect, it bothers me a lot how we dealt with the contagion at the beginning. We closed borders, limited mobility, and everyone thought only of himself: We protected our hut, our house, our city, our country. Instead of taking a global perspective and looking to see who needs what, we narrowed the focus.
The opposite is actually the very idea of Agenda 2030 – global solutions to global problems. Was the initial response to the pandemic a betrayal of the SDGs?
That’s how I see it, yes.
Do you believe that SDG 3 can still be achieved, even against the background of the current situation?
Having goals in mind is always good, but I doubt we can achieve them all by 2030. As I’m a staunch multilateralist, however, not least because of the DAAD, I find it important to stick to the SDGs and to fight for them.