The politics of a pandemic
From advising the Scottish Government to writing opinion pieces for the media, Professor and Chair of Global Public Health in the University’s Usher Institute Devi Sridhar is using her expertise to help guide the country though the coronavirus health crisis.
Professor Devi Sridhar’s days have taken on a familiar – and dizzyingly busy – rhythm in 2020.
She kicks things off with back-to-back interviews with some of the world’s leading media outlets, providing expert commentary to help make sense of a world turned upside down by Covid-19. After that, it’s time to catch up with her Global Health Governance Programme team, who are conducting rapid research into global policies to fight the pandemic. Then there is the small matter of advising the Scottish Government as part of its Covid-19 Advisory Group.
To many this would be an exhausting workload, but Professor Sridhar has taken it on with gusto given we are living through the worst public health crisis in a generation.
“We have to prioritise what’s happening in society,” she explains. “There are times when you need to give up your own interests for the collective good. This is one of them. When this is over, I’ll take a nice, long holiday.”
Professor Sridhar – who hails from Miami, Florida – developed an interest in public health following the death of her father in her teens. It was during this period that her focus switched from the discovery of health solutions to how best to deliver them instead.
There are times when you need to give up your own interests for the collective good. This is one of them.
“If you don’t have health, it destroys your whole life,” she says. “I realised there are a lot of people around the world suffering even though there are adequate medicines and therapies. If we can figure out how to deliver interventions we can solve the burden of disease and suffering in the world.
“For example, everyone is obsessing over a vaccine for Covid-19, but it won’t solve all the problems. A lot will still come down to public health measures, such as how it’s delivered, making it affordable, prioritising who gets it; and doing all of this in an ethical way.”
Pursuing public health
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Miami at the age of 18, Professor Sridhar became the youngest ever person in the United States to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford; a moment she describes as like “winning the lottery”. She completed her PhD at Oxford before going on to become a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and then Associate Professor in Global Health Politics at the University. In 2014 she joined the University of Edinburgh as Professor of Global Public Health where she leads the Global Health Governance Programme. The team of almost 30 experts research how global institutions, finance and rules can better serve the needs of people across the world.
Given her impressive CV it was hardly surprising Professor Sridhar’s expertise was in demand following the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK. In addition to her work with the Scottish Government, she sits on the Royal Society DELVE group and has taken part in a number of Cabinet Office advisory meetings. Of her work with the Scottish Government, she says: “Ministers are dealing with a lot of different issues so it’s important we look ahead and preempt issues on the horizon. Advisers sometimes fear overstepping the mark but I’ve found that ministers want to be told directly what’s on your mind.”
Providing expert commentary
While her research and advisory work is largely undertaken behind closed doors, Professor Sridhar has become a familiar face in UK households thanks to her regular – and widely praised – media appearances. Incisive, expert commentary on the likes of BBC Breakfast, Channel 4 News and Good Morning Britain has led to some hailing her as the UK’s ‘go-to expert’ on Covid-19.
Her modesty prevents her from embracing that status, but she is well aware the impact her presence on TV screens has had.
“Scientists have a duty to try and explain to people what’s happening, take away some of the anxiety and uncertainty and provide a reassuring voice,” she says. “It’s important to show there’s a way through this and this is how we’re going to do it. Communication is absolutely essential during times like this and it’s important it comes from trusted sources.”
She has also been prolific on Twitter, with more than 150,000 people – including leading politicians, academics and journalists – now following her bite-sized takes on how to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. Despite her congested schedule, Professor Sridhar is happy to engage with social media and believes it to be an integral part of a modern academic’s toolkit.
Scientists have a duty to try and explain to people what’s happening, take away some of the anxiety and uncertainty and provide a reassuring voice.
“My sense is that some academics are hesitant about using social media and maybe see it is a bit frivolous,” she says. “A lot of people get their news from social media so I think it’s an incredibly valuable medium for sharing info. For some people, their main source of news might not be BBC News, but it will be Twitter. I hope my approach of sharing news, papers, and useful links will have been of use for people.”
Planning for the future
With so much on her plate, you’d be forgiven for thinking Professor Sridhar would be eyeing opportunities for some downtime. Not a chance. On top of everything, she will now start writing her new book, Preventable: The Politics of Pandemics and How to Stop the Next One, which will be published in 2022.
She also plans to continue advising the Scottish Government for as long they need her expertise. “We’re in this for the long haul, even with a vaccine,” she warns. "If we can be out of this and back to our normal lives by next summer, that will be winning.”
Maybe then she can take that nice, long holiday.
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Written by Guy Atkinson, a freelance writer and former PR and Media Manager for Communications and Marketing at the University.
Photography by Chris Close.