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Devi Sridhar: ‘As soon as you’re in the public sphere, you get hit’

The global public health professor explains why our political leaders were ill-equipped to deal with the Covid threat
May 12, 2022

In November 2020, Devi Sridhar bought a lockdown tortoise. “I made the mistake of googling ‘tortoise sex’ to figure out whether it’s a girl or a boy,” she says. “I was like, I’m gonna have the police at my house soon.”

Sridhar, a professor of global public health at Edinburgh University, has needed the calming companionship of her pet. Amidst the turbulent months from Janury 2020-August 2021, she was thrust into the limelight by the Covid crisis. She became a fixture on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Channel 4 and BBC News, gaining both high-profile fans and critics, as well as many followers. Her new book, Preventable: How a Pandemic Changed the World & How to Stop the Next One, takes a truly global perspective.

In 2018, during a talk at Hay Festival, Sridhar warned that “the largest threat to the UK population is someone in China who has been infected from an animal. Then they get on a plane to the UK. What good is it for the UK to be worried [only] about what’s happening here?” When reports emerged of a cluster of pneumonia-like infections in China, Sridhar, who had studied infectious diseases like Ebola, Aids and the Zika virus, became concerned about this new pathogen. Over the next 18 months, she became a trusted adviser to Nicola Sturgeon, a member of Scottish Sage and the writer of a bi-weekly Guardian column. 

Sridhar, who grew up in Miami with Indian parents, was inspired to pursue a career in public health after her father, a doctor, died of cancer at the age of 49. “I was 12 when he was first diagnosed… this was when we were having mobile phones and wifi and starting a whole tech revolution,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘we can do all these things—we can send people to space, but we can’t solve someone who’s infected or sick with cancer.’” Originally enrolling in medical school to become doctor, she soon switched to public health when she realised that “while medicine is about treating those who are ill, public health is about preventing people from becoming sick in the first place.”

Her new book highlights how failures in leadership—often attributable to hubris and western exceptionalism—led some of the world’s richest countries to underestimate the threat posed by Covid. I ask her why, when many scientists have shown an abundance of leadership during the pandemic, is there a dearth of it in our politicians? Why don’t people like Sridhar run the country? “As soon as you’re out in the public sphere, you do get hit. I mean, look at [the recent article in] the Daily Mail with Angela Rayner… There are a lot of girls and women watching that and thinking, do I want to have that? Do I want my picture on the cover [with] people saying horrible things about me?” she says. 

This makes it difficult to persuade people with humility to pursue prominent public roles, “so what you instead get is a certain, I think, personality type that doesn’t mind that, because they want those positions for having those positions, not what they’re going to do with it.” 

However, Sridhar maintains there are reasons for hope. The rapid and unprecedented development of the vaccines, the formation of the Covax initiative to equitably distribute doses and the incredible selflessness demonstrated by healthcare workers. “We’re doing better, it’s just happening in baby steps.”