The epidemiologist and his fight to prevent the next pandemic | News on the coronavirus pandemic

Monitors beep. A healthcare worker, dressed in a medical gown, face shield and other personal protective equipment, hands a patient an oxygen mask. Beep. “I can’t breathe,” said a man. Beep. A doctor intubates a patient. Beep. Another doctor yells, “Check the x-ray.” The beeps get louder, closer together. A woman seems limp.

“The simulation is over,” said a voice at last.

Netflix’s Pandemic Scene: How to Prevent an Outbreak, filmed in 2019, grabs the viewer in the first five minutes of the six-part documentary series. Syra Madad, a leading epidemiologist in the United States and senior director of the system-wide special pathogens program at New York City Health + Hospitals, oversaw the stress simulation. At the time, Madad was working with health workers in New York City to prepare them for what the infectious disease expert said was inevitable.

“What worries me is that it only takes one person to trigger an epidemic,” Madad says in the documentary. “We are essentially human incubators. We can harbor a number of different diseases. It’s just a matter of when the next pandemic will start. We don’t know where or how, but we know it will.

The Netflix series and Madad’s warning were weirdly premonitory. The episodes were released in the United States on January 22, 2020, a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first case of coronavirus in the countryside. For Madad and his team, their simulations quickly became reality.

“We are involved in all phases of disaster response,” Madad told Al Jazeera on Zoom more than a year after the series was released.

“It could be preparation, response, mitigation, containment and recovery,” adds the 34-year-old. “With COVID-19, we’re in almost all of these different phases at once.”

On this particular day in early March, Madad was reviewing his teams’ efforts around COVID-19, addressing some of the resources they were developing for vaccine reluctance and building confidence in the coronavirus vaccine, and reviewing their Ebola plans and updating training videos.

It’s probably more than many do in a week or a month, but Madad speaks humbly about her work, paying tribute to the many women in public health and those in her life who have helped her get to where she is. she is today.

[Illustration of Syra Madad by Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

A balance

One of these women sits next to Madad during the Zoom video call, her stepmother Dr. Saiyeda Madad.

“She was instrumental in who I am,” says Madad, smiling sweetly at her stepmother, who is a retired pediatrician and lives with Madad and her family.

“When I got married 10 years ago, I was completely new to family dynamics, not only to keep a family together, but also to nurture a family and be a working mother,” says Madad. The epidemiologist has three children aged one, five and seven. Her team and the city activated its incident command structure for COVID-19 on January 21, 2020, just eight days after Madad gave birth to her daughter.

“I learned a lot from her, but in particular she taught me how to balance work and family life,” says Madad, referring to the many formal and informal cooking lessons her mother-in-law gave. .

Diagnosed with Parkison’s disease and dementia, Saiyeda Madad doesn’t say much as she listens to her stepdaughter speak, but in the few words she said – she was enjoying “everything” about when she was working out – and how her face looked. lights up when Madad speaks to her, it’s easy to tell how proud she is of her job and her stepdaughter.

“She taught me to [realise] that not only can I excel in my respective fields, public health and health, but also [realise] that as a mother, as a daughter-in-law, as a wife, I can also give the right balance that we often play, ”says Madad.

[Illustration of Saiyeda Madad by Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

An anchor

Madad also says she couldn’t have gotten to where she is today without her anchor – her mother, Rehana Sikandar, 61.

Sikandar immigrated to the United States from Pakistan with her husband, Madad’s father, when she was 18. The couple hoped to give their future children the opportunities they didn’t have when they were young.

“She always wanted to go to school. She always wanted to be a teacher herself and she just couldn’t do it, ”says Madad. “And so, she certainly instilled in us to constantly reach out, not just for the stars, but to do more than what we do.”

In many ways, says Madad, she is “taking over” from her mother and showing her and others that as “Muslim, Pakistani, American women we can break down cultural barriers and all. different cultural norms. “.

“She was definitely a motivator for me,” says Madad.

Sikandar has always supported her daughter, but she has the same worries as any mother, especially for a child who works in public health.

“My spark in the field of public health and infectious diseases, and in particular highly infectious diseases, came at a very young age,” says Madad, recalling the time she first saw the film. 1995, Outbreak, and later read the non-fiction based book, The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston.

In the film, a team of doctors and scientists, played by a star cast – Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, and Morgan Freeman, among others – fight the rapidly spreading fictional Motaba virus in the made-up small town of Cedar. Creek, California. The film is a tense thriller, but for a young Madad it had a lasting impact.

“When I mentioned to my mother very early on that I was interested in infectious diseases, she was a little afraid when she saw that I was really interested in this film,” recalls Madad.

Almost two decades later in 2014, when Madad, responding to the very real Ebola disease, dressed in personal protective equipment to enter a high containment area in Texas, she received a call from her mother. , worried for her daughter’s safety.

“She always plays that role, reminding me to take a step back and ask, ‘Is this safe and is this something you feel comfortable doing? Madad said. “Time and time again, whether it’s Ebola or COVID-19, she always plays the same role, asking, ‘Are you taking care of yourself? Are you safe? … I get this call from her every day.

[Illustration of Rehana Sikandar by Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

A “ three-pronged approach ”

When Madad is not dressing in PPE to fight Ebola or COVID-19 on the front lines facing the public, she is behind the scenes, working to ensure that health workers and health systems are also prepared. and resourced as possible.

His work and expertise was not only highlighted in Netflix docu-series, but also in Discovery Channel’s recent documentary The Vaccine: Conquering COVID.

In a scene from the Netflix pandemic, Madad speaks to leaders of New York City hospitals and gets updates on flu cases. In another scene, she stands in a New York State senator’s office, asking for her support in pushing the state to help fund critical readiness programs, and in another, she picks up her sons. at school.

“It’s kind of a three-pronged approach,” says Madad, reflecting on how she is handling it all. “It’s obviously about making sure you give your full attention in the workplace, it’s about making sure you give your full attention at home with your family, and that you are part of the community as well. .

The last aspect is particularly important to Madad, especially as a Muslim American. In her faith, Madad was inspired by Zaynab bint Ali, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, who is revered for her work of caring for the sick and the poor.

“She was not just a mother, but a daughter. She was a sister, and she took those roles and made sure that [not] It only shaped who she was, but also to show the world that women play such a central role in society, in the community, ”says Madad.

Zaynab teaches that “you don’t have to just walk through things, you can have a humanistic approach and you can be whatever you can be in the midst of whatever is going on around you,” he explains. -she. . “She played a central role in the story, she is kind of the shining light and a great example not only for Muslim women, but also for women around the world.

A silent workforce

In many ways, Madad herself is also a shining light for women around the world. His passion for his work, his pioneering spirit, his tireless efforts to ensure that his staff and healthcare workers around the world are prepared and adequately resourced to fight infectious diseases, and his dedication to his family and her community are simply an inspiration.

But it was the women who helped Madad along the way, and the other women in public health, whom she portrays as the real heroes.

“There are so many women in this world who have shaped and continue to shape public health as we know it,” says Madad.

“A lot of times you don’t hear about it, you might not see what we’re doing, but we are the invisible workforce that really makes it so that we can continue to thrive and live the life there is. healthier possible, ”she adds. Women play a “central role” in society, particularly in public health and “shaping who we are and how we prevent the next pandemic”.

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