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Awake At Night | S3-Episode 21: There Is Hope

Published: Fri 16 Apr 2021 06:15 AM
Brazzaville visit to CSI Pilote du Diabete with Health workers at a local government clinic. 2018 - Photo: ©CSI/Dr. Soumya Swaminathan
Awake At Night | S3-Episode 21: There Is Hope
SOUMYA SWAMINATHAN :: INTERVIEWED BY MELISSA FLEMING :: PUBLISHED 12 MAR 2021
"When it comes to a pandemic, it really needs global collaboration and solidarity because the pathogens and viruses do not respect borders."
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organisation (WHO), shares her insights on how lessons from other infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV have shaped our response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. The clinical scientist also discusses how new technologies have given us the possibility to control diseases in ways we’ve never had before.
During the early ‘90s, Soumya successfully raised funds to get antiretroviral drugs to families affected by the HIV epidemic. Many of their children are still alive today thanks to her work. In this fascinating interview, she explains her hopes for future generations who are now exposed to the intricacies and power of science to affect change.
"I'm very hopeful that this will inspire more trust and confidence in science, and also inspire young people to take up science as a career because they can see how wonderful it is to be able to contribute."About the hostMelissa Fleming
Melissa Fleming is the United Nations' Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications as of 1 September 2019.
Full Transcript +
Melissa Fleming 00:00
From the United Nations. I'm Melissa Fleming and this is Awake at Night. My guest today is Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organisation. Soumya, today you're speaking to me from Geneva where you're based, but you're originally from India. You're a doctor and a researcher with huge experience in tackling public health challenges. What motivated you to study medicine?
Soumya Swaminathan 00:44
Actually, I was interested in veterinary medicine as a child, it was my love for animals. But also I loved young children. And I also loved research because I grew up in a family where my father was an agricultural scientist so I grew up in the midst of students, and laboratories and field experiments. Maybe all of that really made me want to do research. And somewhere when I was a teenager, I think I switched from wanting to be a veterinary doctor and researcher to being a medical doctor. But again, within medicine, I wanted to be a paediatrician because I wanted to be with children. A lot of my peers were also studying for the medical entrance exam and I think I also got swept up in that. So that's how I ended up actually in medical school.
Melissa Fleming 01:36
Maybe you could just tell me a bit about your parents. What did they do? And how did they encourage you? How did they inspire you?
Soumya Swaminathan 01:45
So my father is an agricultural scientist, he was a very well known scientist who was involved in developing the new varieties of wheat and rice in the 1960s which made India self-sufficient in food. What's often called the Green Revolution. My mother is a preschool teacher, she was a preschool teacher, and she was a feminist, of course, but also a very bold woman who did things on her own rights. She wanted to be recognised for herself. She broke out of the mainstream and set up nursery schools and preschools for children from underprivileged communities in the neighbourhood, in the institute where we were working. But also were at construction labour sites where the children of these migrant construction workers would often just be left just sitting under the tree, the elder sibling looking after younger siblings while both the mother and father worked at these construction sites in Delhi.
My mother was one of the founders of mobile crèches which were crèches for the children of these migrant workers which gave them not only shelter, but education and food for those hours of the day when the parents were at work. So I was exposed both to science and research through my father's work and the connection with farmers and villages because it was about agricultural research. But also through my mother, seeing the lives of the underprivileged and realising how lucky we were actually, to be going to good schools and getting a good education and, you know, having a nice home to live in. While many of these children were really struggling against all odds, we had a very happy childhood. But I must say that I got a lot of diverse experiences, travelling also to different parts of the country and just experiencing the different ways in which people live in India, as you know, is a huge, diverse country, most of India's rural, and I think that has influenced me in my career.
Melissa Fleming 03:53
Your father was behind the Green Revolution in India. Tell us a little bit about that, and what was his role?
Soumya Swaminathan 04:04
So India, after independence in 1947, was a country that faced recurrent famines and droughts and that was dependent on food import from the United States and from other countries. Every year, we were importing grain to feed. At that time, the population I think was 250-300 million people and people were dying of starvation. So my father had lived through the great Bengal famine and that's what motivated him to become an agricultural scientist. After his training in Cambridge in Wisconsin, he went back to India and worked at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute where he started working on these high yielding varieties of wheat and rice. In a matter of a decade, actually, India went from being an importer of food to being completely self sufficient. And it was the farmers in Punjab and Haryana, who adopted these high yielding varieties of wheat and rice that actually made all the difference.
So it was a partnership between him and the scientists of that time and the farmers and a good example of how, when people - the end user, in this case, the farmers - adopt new technology and innovation you can actually transform the landscape completely. So I grew up at a time when that was happening and it was all very exciting. After that, he did a lot of things to really talk about the issue of sustainability because the price that we paid for having these high yielding varieties of cereals was that they required a lot of water and they required a lot of chemical pesticides. That, of course, affects the quality of the soil and the water where this type of agriculture is happening.
Quite early on, he recognised that we need to move beyond that really go to a more sustainable mode of agriculture which will protect the environment while at the same time bringing enough income to farmers and making sure there's enough food on the table for the increasing population of India. So he's had a very long and distinguished career but I think the main lesson that I learned from him was really, that he took a problem at that time, which would have seemed insurmountable, to feed 300 million people but then found a solution through science to make that work and was able to develop the partnership with farmers, and of course, had the political support. So you need all of those things, in order to make a good idea, actually, into something that changes the lives of people.
Melissa Fleming 06:34
At what point in your childhood, did he become so famous and known throughout India as the father of the Green Revolution? And what did your friends say to you about your dad?
Soumya Swaminathan 06:46
Yes, he became very famous when he was quite young because of all this work that he did when he was in his 30s. So people knew his name and, yes, all my friends knew his name. But one thing my parents did was to make sure that we were never treated differently. We had friends from all different backgrounds and also, my parents never put a lot of pressure on us in terms of academics. In India, at that time, growing up, it was very important to be first in class, to have the best marks possible. I was a good student but if I would come back and show my report card to my parents, it was about ‘Okay, fine.’ You know, it was never like, ‘Oh, excellent. You've come first in class this time, you have to keep it up.’ So we got the message that that's not the only thing in life, you do well at studies, that's important. But there are many other aspects to life. I think we got that grounding which included being open to ideas, being able to see other people's point of view, equity, fairness, and so on.WHO Deputy Director-General for Programmes (DDP) Soumya Swaminathan speaking with members of the South Sudanese refugee community at the Almanar Health Center in Mayo, Khartoum, 2018 - Photo: ©WHO Sudan/Simon van Woerden
Melissa Fleming 07:51
Interesting. I mean, you mentioned your mother was working among, and for and behalf of people who are underprivileged. Do you recall a time when she might have taken you out into the community and you saw a family or you had an encounter that, you know, left an impression on you?
Soumya Swaminathan 08:13
Yes, I mean, there was a lot of poverty in India at that time. So growing up in New Delhi, one did see a lot of poor people around, a lot of migrants who came looking for jobs. I have been with her quite often, she would take me with her when she went to these construction work sites. I remember being quite shocked as a child, I must have been nine or 10, to go to a construction site and see these babies that were basically hanging in slings from the trees or from any pole which was at that construction site and being looked after by an elder sibling who was herself five or six years old and should have been in school who was feeding this baby from a bottle, usually diluted milk or tea. While the mother is carrying bricks and working on this construction site.
Then I saw how the mobile crèches movement actually set up. They would just find a place within that construction site which was a safe environment where all of these little children would be taken care of. Often by women who were also in the neighbourhood and who came from the lower middle income groups, but who recognised that they were actually doing a service for others. This grew into a huge movement and spread from Delhi to many, many other cities across India. It still continues today. I think it's been 50 years now since the founding of the mobile crèches. I was very affected when I went to the sites
Melissa Fleming 09:48
Did that, perhaps, lead or sparked your interest in becoming a paediatrician?
Soumya Swaminathan 09:54
It could have. I think, by nature, I always loved children. Even when I was a little girl, I took care of both my younger siblings, when my parents had to leave us and travel. I always loved being with children. So I think that's what drove me to being a paediatrician. I can bond with children. I get on well with them, they get on well with me. And somewhere I recognise that children are not able to tell you verbally of their problems so it really is more instinctive that you need to be able to recognise from their body language and from cues. By examining them [and understanding] what might potentially be wrong with them. That was a challenge that I wanted to take.
Melissa Fleming 10:38
You went to medical school, tell us about your studies and then the next part of your life.
Soumya Swaminathan 10:45
So I went to medical school in Pune, a city in Maharashtra, near Mumbai, to the Armed Forces Medical College. Once I finished my schooling, I did my internship at a military hospital in Delhi but then I opted not to continue with the armed forces and decided instead to study paediatrics in Delhi. I finished my MD which is three years and then I had a stint where I spent two years in the US and two years in the UK, actually specialising in paediatric lung diseases and also getting exposed to research methods which was always my passion.
When I went back to India in 1991, I wanted to work in an environment in which I could do my clinical medicine and patient care, but also do research and potentially some teaching. And it was impossible to find a position like that. It was very disappointing for me because I had seen in the United States that you could actually combine all of these, but it was not possible in India. And so I opted for a career focus mainly on research, which, of course, involves seeing patients and so I joined the Tuberculosis Research Centre in Chennai, which is one of the Institute's of the Indian Council of Medical Research, where my work then- for most of my career - was essentially research on tuberculosis, on HIV, and on other infectious diseases linked to that. But it was really my love for research that drove me into that position.
Melissa Fleming 12:24
Were you a bit of a pioneer there? Did you manage to change things?Dr. Swaminathan consulting with a patient whose child has TB. National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis, Chennai, 1997 - Photo: ©Jon Cohen
Soumya Swaminathan 12:28
I think I did. But it took some time and it was actually quite challenging for me. But from the beginning, I knew that one had to work with patients and communities, if you are a researcher, you cannot be in an ivory tower, you have to be in in a day to day touch, where you know what's happening with the patient population that you work with, and the community that you work with. So I made it a point actually to travel to the homes of my patients, so I knew where all my patients lived.
TB patients usually come from the poorest sections of society so I've been to all the slums in Chennai. And I know the conditions in which those patients live. It gave me a better appreciation for why a purely biomedical approach is unlikely to work in a disease like tuberculosis, where there's so much of the social and economic and environmental risk factors that are driving that disease, you have to approach it much more holistically. If I had stayed in my clinic or in my research institute and not ventured out, I don't think I would have had those insights.
Melissa Fleming 13:34
So you focused on tuberculosis and also HIV. What lessons did you learn from that?
Soumya Swaminathan 13:44
That also made a big impact on me because I started working in HIV in the mid 90s, when HIV was actually picking up in India. There were a lot of patients that were being diagnosed, particularly in the state where I worked in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. [There was a0 huge amount of stigma and discrimination at that time because people were so fearful of getting the disease. There was a complete fear of even going anywhere near someone who had HIV infection. And there was no treatment available at that time.
The antiretroviral treatment through the government programme began in 2004 in India. And so for a good 10 years before that, I was working with HIV positive patients who knew the treatments were available. People would ask me, my patients would ask me, why they did not have access to these drugs when they heard that they were available in other countries and I had no answer. The other very sad thing about the whole epidemic was that it wasn't just again, the medical part of it, but it was the impact on families.
Often the first person in the family to be infected was the man usually quite young, you know, the earning member of the family. He would get sick and die. His wife would have taken care of him while he was ill very often, she was infected. Some of the children may have been infected, and then they were often thrown out of the household once the husband had died, and they were not wanted, either in her own family, or in her husband's family, so these women and their children often were being rehabilitated in homes, where they lived, and then sometimes there were orphans where both parents have died. I took care of a lot of those children as well.
We somehow were raising funds and trying to get antiretroviral drugs through donations, and so on. We kept some of those children alive and they're still alive today. They're in their 20s now. But many of them died very horrible and painful deaths so I can never forget that time in my life when I saw both adults and children dying of a disease for which there were treatments available. It was completely demoralising for every one of us to be working. And also a period where I really felt like I was going through burnout because every day I was doing the same thing and counselling these patients and giving them just some words of solace. I can never forget what one patient said to me one morning, I was doing ward rounds and I held his hand and I said ‘How are you doing today?’
He knew he was dying, actually. His CD4 counts were extremely low and he had, again, developed a recurrence of tuberculosis. He knew he didn't have long to live. But he said to me, ‘Doctor, you've done everything that's possible for me, I know that. You've tried your best, there's nothing more you can do. But the fact that you come and hold my hand and ask me how I am, that's enough for me, because everyone else looks at me as though you know, I'm a pariah.’
Then, of course, he said, ‘Take care of my wife.’ We had to work with lawyers who were providing free legal advice to these women who were being deprived of all of their property and income, whatever they were entitled to. So again, it was a disease which had such wide ramifications just beyond the medical part of it.
Melissa Fleming 17:12
Indeed, it must have been incredibly frustrating to see, as you mentioned, that treatments were available, but just unaccessible and unaffordable. Fast forwarding to today, are you seeing any parallels with the rollout of the Coronavirus vaccine?
Soumya Swaminathan 17:31
We've seen time and time again that products developed in high income countries take decades to find their way to low income countries. This has happened with influenza pandemics. It's happened with HIV. It's happened with hepatitis B vaccines. It took 30 years for hepatitis B vaccines to get to developing countries and that's exactly the reason why the COVAX was set up to make sure that as vaccines get developed, that there's also equity in access. I think that it was a good move and that it's going to be successful. I'm very hopeful that COVAX is going to succeed in bringing vaccines to people in every country in the world.
Melissa Fleming 18:15
So for the first time ever, having taken the lessons from HIV and all of the other diseases that the richer world found treatment for and found vaccines for, the mechanism has been found. The funding was slow but finally, there is rollout and there is hope. How are we coping? We're going to go back into your history a little bit. But I just want to know, let's look at today. With all that you have experienced dealing with infectious diseases in your history, how are we coping with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Soumya Swaminathan 18:54
It's been, I must say a real learning experience. I think when it comes to a pandemic, it really needs global collaboration and solidarity because the pathogens and viruses do not respect borders. What we saw in the first few months of the pandemic were terrible inequities of supplies of simple things like gloves and masks, personal protective equipment and oxygen. We saw the toll that it took on healthcare workers just because they did not have access to this basic protective equipment.
I think there's a lesson for us that we need to really look at production capacity, look at supply chains. What to me has been very positive has been what happened with science and the scientific collaboration that happened during the past year. The fact that people have been so willing and open to share knowledge. It's helped us in the WHO to be ahead of the curve. I think it's the reason that we've had so many dozens of vaccine candidates being developed is because, of course, the investment that went into science in the preceding years but also because of the willingness for the private and the public sectors to really work together to share knowledge in order to make this happen.
Of course, there's a technology gap still between the high income and the middle and lower income countries and we would like to focus on bridging that gap by doing the technology transfer, particularly for some of these new platform technologies like the mRNA, which has really proved itself now in this pandemic. The first few vaccines to come out with mRNA vaccines which also offer the possibility of being very quickly able to adapt to variations in the virus as well as to create vaccines against new pathogens. So it's a perfect platform for pandemic response. This is the time that the world needs to think about, of course, getting to the end of this pandemic but also, at the same time, preparing for the next one by making sure that, again, this technology is not limited to a few sites in the world, but is more broadly available, and could be used to control some of our other big public health problems like TB.
You know, I often think about TB, because one and a half million people die of tuberculosis every year, year after year, after a year. It's such a huge toll it takes on people and yet, we only react when there's, you know, a pandemic, or there's an epidemic, where it's very dramatic. But we get used to diseases that kill millions but it's often invisible because it happens in the poor. And it happens not only in poor countries, but amongst the poorest of the poor in those countries. So even in a country like India, a person who dies of dengue in a city would make headlines, whereas you'd have had 1000 deaths due to TB on the same day and that would not feature in any news story at all. I think that as human beings, we probably get used to things which even if they're very painful, we stopped paying attention to them. But to me, these new technologies now offer us the possibility to control diseases like tuberculosis and malaria through novel vaccines that we did not have before.
Melissa Fleming 22:28
That's wonderful. I mean, is it because this virus has hit the rich countries so dramatically that we have a vaccine and one year when the average time for a vaccine was I think it was seven or 10 years, and that there is a possibility to control this pandemic in record time?
Soumya Swaminathan 22:52
So unfortunately, it is true that if you see the disease affecting your own communities then rich countries are much likely to invest. But, perhaps, the lesson that we've learned now, is that because we live in a globalised world, even if it's a disease that starts in one part of the world doesn't take much for it to actually travel and infect people in other countries. So I hope that there'll be a new paradigm now, just thinking about public health, not focusing only on one country or your own country, but really thinking about public health, global health security as affecting the planet as a whole. And it's not only humans but animals that we need to think about, and environment, because we know that the pandemics arise from interactions between animals, humans and the environment.Nairobi, 2018 - Photo: ©Dr Soumya Swaminathan
Melissa Fleming 23:43
Were you surprised when COVID-19 emerged and spread so quickly around the world?
Soumya Swaminathan 23:53
Yes, of course. I think, when a pandemic actually happens, of course, it takes everyone by surprise because you don't know when that moment is going to be. Again, I think that public health is essentially something that's preventing these things from happening, bad things from happening, and therefore, it's very difficult for people to see the value of the investments because if you're preventing an event from happening, and it doesn't happen, then you can never see the value of the investment because you wonder did I spend all that money for nothing?
It is very difficult, I think, to convince ministers of finance to put money into prevention when it's so much more visible and attractive to put it into building a hospital. To put it into something that's much more immediate and visible. It became clear that even high income countries which have very sophisticated medical centres and treatment facilities were caught unawares because their public health response systems were not as strong. So the elements of contact tracing and following up people and making sure that they are in quarantine and providing that sort of isolation, all of that, did not happen the way it should have been. Whereas we saw that in many lower income countries, actually, they did much better at those responses because they're used to diseases like TB and HIV and malaria where you depend on a workforce of community health workers and others who are doing that outreach. All countries can learn from each other now, and hopefully strengthen those elements that were found to be wanting, that were weak.
Melissa Fleming 25:36
Tell me just, you are the Chief Scientist for WHO. WHO has been in the epicentre of trying to manage this COVID-19 crisis, what is a day in the life like for you? It must be quite intense, quite stressful.
Soumya Swaminathan 25:54
Indeed, I think now, there's a certain balance that has come in, but in the initial months, it was very stressful because it was a new virus .We didn't know a lot about it .The main challenge was being able to provide evidence based guidelines to the world where we're fairly confident of what we're saying. At the same time, we're not waiting too long for all the evidence to come in. We have been criticised from time to time as being too slow. But in a pandemic, of course, you have to move very fast. But at the same time, you cannot provide advice unless you have a scientific basis for doing that.
I think that was always the balance that we needed to constantly be treading - that fine line between when do you go out and tell people to do something? Do you have enough evidence to back that up? Because this has huge implications, it means that governments around the world start implementing what the WHO is telling them to do.
Melissa Fleming 26:51
Indeed. That has posed an incredible challenge. I mean, WHO coined the term infedemic, at the same time, it declared a global pandemic and this meant that not only trusted information science based on science from who and other national health authorities was coming out, but it was mixed with misinformation that was confusing the public. What have you learned from this experience trying to communicate publicly an evolving pandemic where the science was changing, your knowledge was changing.
Soumya Swaminathan 27:31
Indeed. I think it's the first time that ordinary people have been exposed to the intricacies of science and of decision making and of product development. So vaccine development is a good example of people questioning the speed at which vaccines were being developed and were there steps that were being compromised. Or they were also questioning many of the guidance that was coming out of WHO and again, the infodemic was not helping, because there was so much information out there. A lot of it was either false or misleading information that it was very difficult for people to pick and choose between credible information and what was misinformation.
We spend some time actually explaining to people how science develops and it's an incremental process and you build on it. You learn new things every day. Just because you change your views doesn't mean that you weren't wrong, it just means that there's more evidence now. There's more data now. So one of the lessons I learned was to be very humble about it and to start off by saying, we're learning every day, this is changing, we'll keep updating you. But things are changing.
I get a lot of questions about vaccines now. And again, we say it's still early days we're learning and today, what we know about vaccines is this: that they protect you from severe disease, hospitalisation, and death, you must get your vaccines if the government is offering it to you. We don't yet know if it prevents infection so make sure you still take precautions because you could still get infections and spread it even if you're not getting sick. Perhaps after a couple of months, we will know which vaccines are actually stopping transmission and we will change our guidance at that time. But till then we have to be cautious.
I think it's been a delicate balancing act between people thinking it changing your mind all the time, you don't know what you're talking about, to explaining to people that that's how science evolves. Also telling them that look, ‘This is playing out live in front of you. Normally, science happens behind the scenes and you only get to see the end product, the end result. But here you're actually seeing it on the newspaper on the television every day.’ So this is a very new experience for people. But again, I'm very hopeful that this will inspire more trust and confidence in science, and also inspire young people to take up science as a career because they can see how wonderful it is to be able to contribute.
Melissa Fleming 29:58
What would you say to somebody who said that they were fearful or hesitant about taking this vaccine?
Soumya Swaminathan 30:05
Well, I would say ask all your questions and we should be able to provide the answers to you. I think a lot of people have genuine questions about vaccines particularly since they were developed so quickly and many of them are with new platforms like the mRNA vaccines. They have genuine questions which we should answer. I think there's a minority of people who are sort of anti vaccine per se, you know, and that's not based on any rationality, and they're not going to change their minds. But I think that's a minority.
I think the majority of people are saying, ‘Okay, you've got these vaccines to us in a year, I really wonder, how did these get developed so quickly.’ And then we explain to them that we did not compromise on any of the steps, or skip over any of the steps, it was just that huge investments were made in order to do these things in parallel rather than one after the other. Investments were made and scaling up manufacturing so that even at the day that clinical trials were completed, you could have actually tens of millions of doses out for people which normally never happens with any product. It takes a long time and companies wait to see if their product is successful before they will start even investing in manufacturing.
There have been a lot of investments made by companies, by governments, by philanthropies in order to shorten those timelines. But it's not by compromising on the quality of clinical trials, those have still been done and the regulators have looked at the data very carefully before proving. So any vaccine that's been through the regulatory approval process that's been through the WHO prequalification process, I think people can feel confident that we have looked very carefully at the safety and efficacy and the quality of manufacturing, before we provide that certification.
Melissa Fleming 31:58
We're almost, well hopefully. nearing some sign of the end of the road at least to control this pandemic. But there must be things that worry you. So what these days keeps you awake at night?Dr. Swaminathan with her patients at the National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis - Photo: ©Soumya Swaminathan
Soumya Swaminathan 32:14
Well, one thing that's worrying me now is the fact that this virus has been able to change itself, to mutate into some variants, where it's being successfully able to overcome antibodies. For the first few months of the year, we were actually very relieved that this virus was not mutating as rapidly as some other viruses like influenza, for example.
But over the last few months, we've seen that when there is intense transmission, when there's a lot of virus out there replicating in people, that these mutations tend to increase. There are a few worrying ones that are popping up in different countries and different places at the same time which means a virus is adapting itself, and learning how to survive in humans and to escape the immune system.
Well, again, science is rising to the challenge vaccine developers are now modifying their vaccine so that they can take this into account so hopefully, we can stay ahead of that. But it just means that we will really need to come together again, have a very coordinated approach and the WHO is now getting all the different groups together in order to provide that guidance on when a vaccine would need to change based on epidemiology based on the response, the laboratory experiments that would need to be done.
Again, it's a lot more work but it means that we have to be very vigilant also and, again, if we can keep virus transmission down till we can vaccinate enough people around the world, then we can actually prevent more mutants and more variants from arising. It's really important that every country, every individual, focuses on doing the things that can keep transmission down while we scale up vaccines because it is going to take some time to vaccinate 5 billion people across the world in order to achieve that herd immunity. For some time to come, I think we will need to continue to be careful. Again, that's something that worries me because people are losing their patience. They are getting frustrated. They want to go out and be normal again. And then there's the risk. This virus is just waiting for opportunities to start transmitting itself again.
The other thing that keeps me up at night is the impact that this pandemic has had on the world's poor. We know that they've been disproportionately impacted, that their livelihoods have been lost. More people have gone into poverty. Young children who've gone out of school, some of them may never come back. We could see increases in undernutrition and malnutrition but also in trafficking and so on. So as the world thinks about coming out of this pandemic, it's not just about controlling COVID-19. It's about addressing all of these other unmet health needs which are linked to poverty, that are linked to lack of access to services and to health products and to ensure that we can bring up health for all really. Universal health coverage is the solution to tackle all of these diseases. So I hope that there will be a renewed emphasis on universal health coverage, even as we put more resources into pandemic preparedness and, well, seeing the end of this one.
Melissa Fleming 35:41
Thank you, Soumya. We haven't talked about your own family, I believe you are also married to a doctor and tell me about him, your children? And what are your hopes for them?
Soumya Swaminathan 35:54
Yes, so my husband is an orthopaedic surgeon. We were in medical school together and he lives and practices in Chennai, in South India. So when I took this position at WHO I moved to Geneva by myself, so I live by myself here. I have a daughter who's a marine biologist and she's doing her PhD now. She works on coral reefs, and again, works on the impact of global warming on the terrible impact of global warming on coral reefs around the world, and trying to find ways to mitigate that. Then I have a son who's, well, he loves video games so he wants to spend his time designing and playing video games. So he's, I guess, a typical boy of his generation. He’s is in the virtual world.
Melissa Fleming 36:41
So you're probably working most of the time, there must be hopefully some things that you do to relax and have some fun.
Soumya Swaminathan 36:50
Well luckily, I have wonderful colleagues and friends here. It's a very global community so we have a network that’s really… We’ve supported each other through all of these past months. I love nature and I'm lucky to be in Geneva, surrounded by such a beautiful, exquisite nature. So the way I destress is really going for long walks and I've done that throughout the last year, and it refreshes me and it gives me more energy to continue working.
Melissa Fleming 37:22
I miss those walks myself along the lake. It is absolutely stunning in Geneva. Thank you so much, Soumya, for joining us on Awake At Night. It's been fascinating speaking to you and hearing your insights.
Soumya Swaminathan 37:36
Thank you, Melissa. Yeah, it's a real pleasure. Thank you for inviting me to do this.
Melissa Fleming 37:51
Thank you for listening to Awake At Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of global crisis. To find out more about the series, and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org-awake-at-night. On Twitter, we're @UN and I'm @melissafleming. Soumya is @doctorsoumya Subscribe to Awake at Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us. It does make a difference.
Thanks to my producers, Bethany Bell, and the team at Chalk & Blade: Laura Sheeter, Fatuma Khaireh, Cheri Percy and Alex Portfelix, and to my colleagues at the UN, Roberta Politi, Darrin Farrant, Angelinah Boniface, Hilary He, Geneva Damayanti, Tulin Battikhi, and Bissera Kostova.
Special thanks to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for their support. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah, and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.

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