COVID-19 Alumni Stories: Neale Batra

Neale Batra (MSc Epidemiology, 2016) describes how his life has changed since first hearing about COVID-19 in January. He speaks about his work for the World Health Organization (WHO) unravelling the, now, pandemic and how he made the switch from tackling the outbreak from a global to a local level.

“It was 1 January 2020 in Geneva when I first heard about the cluster of ‘pneumonia of unknown etiology’ reported in Wuhan, China. As an epidemiologist in WHO’s emergencies programme, my focus was the Ebola epidemic but that paradigm quickly began to shift. As we learned more about the novel coronavirus, the discussions around scientific parameters, containment, preparedness, data quality, travel restrictions, and supply chain intensified in an unrelenting crescendo. Quickly, I was tasked to help establish a global case surveillance system and feed on-demand epidemiological updates to the Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom and others. Data would arrive from countries in varying formats, often delayed or incomplete, at all times of day and night. It needed to be validated, cleaned and synthesised to satisfy the demanding daily rhythm of reports and briefings. As the virus spread, external partners arrived to support us and the team’s mandate grew more complex. Often, interpreting the implications of what was not known was as important as what was. Amidst all this we tried hard to keep a broad perspective and deliver uninterrupted epidemiological support to colleagues still battling Ebola in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Personally, I struggled to reconcile my exhilaration and my fear. I had trained my entire career for this long-expected scenario, yet I was saddened by the profound losses and changes on the horizon.”

“In May, I left my role at WHO and began supporting the local COVID-19 response in the San Francisco Bay area. My first four years in public health were at the community level and I appreciate the groundedness that comes with working for one’s neighbours. I now advise county leadership on strategy and policy, addressing practical matters that impact the millions of residents in this region. Some days I am at ground-level detecting new clusters, analysing trends, and building capacity for contact tracing and testing. Other times, I am engaged in higher-level work such as cross-jurisdiction coordination and projection modelling. My colleagues here intimately know the contours of inequity and injustice that mark these neighbourhoods, and those are the same fault lines that COVID-19 traces today.

“I feel fortunate to have been involved at the global scale in the pandemic’s emergence, and now at a local scale as communities try to reduce its impact. The training I received at LSHTM helped prepare me for both of these roles. The School’s strong connection with WHO was an immense asset during my time in Geneva. The rigorous epidemiological training from the MSc Epidemiology programme has helped me interrogate data and trends with an eye toward practical action. Finally, the network of colleagues and friends from Keppel Street now working in cities and institutions across the globe has been invaluable to share approaches, challenges, and ideas.”

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