Even though she is a lauded epidemiologist, Covid’s severity took Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor at Columbia University, by surprise. “People in my world always felt there was a possibility of a pandemic by a new virus,” she said, “but the magnitude and speed at which it happened, and the profound impact on the world, was beyond what I imagined.”
The public health crisis, however, has not stopped the 70-year-old from going to her office at the university every day, even on weekends. As the director of ICAP, a Columbia initiative that supports H.I.V./AIDS research, and the incoming director of Columbia World Projects, which is dedicated to improving lives across the globe, she has been busy. Recently, she has focused her work with both organizations on helping vulnerable populations, both here and abroad, navigate the pandemic.
As for New York City’s future, Dr. El-Sadr, who lives in Columbia housing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is somewhat optimistic. “I see light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “How we get through the tunnel safely until we reach the light is the challenge.”
EARLY MORNING MOMENT I have an alarm that I set for 5:45, but I usually wake up a few minutes before. I make one or two Nespressos, black, which I drink out of a cup someone gave me years ago from Japan. Then I sit in the living room. I have a beautiful view of the Hudson River, which is very soothing. I take a moment to stare out the window. To see the change of the seasons connects me to nature. I can get 600 emails a day. I try to go through all of them. For the next hour or two I read emails, download and review documents and reflect on what’s ahead for the week.
FLOWER RUN I have showered and dressed by 8. I drive my 20-year-old Toyota RAV4, which is falling apart, to Trader Joe’s. The line is shorter now and I’m there early so it’s not bad. Since the pandemic, I’ve bought flowers each week to bring nature and life to my office — it’s always something different, like lilies or hydrangeas — and I get prepared Greek or chicken salads to take to work. Then I drive to my office.
THE NOTEBOOK I’m the only one here. During the week I can spend 14 hours here. I didn’t want to work virtually. I wanted to be present and engaged in the response. I’ve never been in sweatpants mode; I get dressed in a skirt or dress and boots, which I’m known for wearing. As I go through emails I make a list of the ones I need to address right away in what I call a homework notebook. The one I’m using now has flowers on the cover, and it goes home with me. I can go through 10 or 12 in a few months. I can pull out one and find exactly where I took the notes from a specific meeting.
FINGER ON THE PULSE Then I look to see what’s happened overnight and check on the Covid situation. I look at the data from the United States and from around the world. I scan the scientific papers and journals: The New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association. I look at the C.D.C., the World Health Organization and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene websites. Things change so fast. You have to keep a finger on the pulse.
PREP Since the beginning of the pandemic at ICAP, we have had a weekly global town hall on Thursdays. Each week, our staff from around the world come together virtually. I select a topic of interest: the global vaccine access, the pause of the J & J vaccine, the controversy around vaccine passports.
‘CAN DO, MUST DO’ Even though a quiet office means no interruptions, it’s still lonely. I feel a sense of loss. My motivation and energy come from others. The virtual connection does not replace real connections. What has kept me going is being inspired by the people I work with, here and globally. What’s kept me going is a sense of endurance, a ‘can do, must do’ attitude by my teams which is inspiring and motivating. I’m lucky to have that.
CHATTER Since I was a young person growing up in Egypt, I listened to the Voice of America or the BBC. When I’m working by myself I have NPR in the background; it makes me feel like I have company. I love interviews, it’s a way to connect with the world. Sometimes I’ll click on a link and listen to an interesting scientific presentation or a recording of a conference.
DINNER POD I have dinner once or twice a month with my daughter, brother and an old friend from Egypt who I went to medical school with and his wife. They have been my pod. I leave work around 4, and if our dinner is at my house I’ll buy food from Morton Williams or Westside Market. I make tabbouleh salad or what my daughter calls Egyptian rice, which has onions and raisins; chicken cutlets, which are breaded and fried; or lamb meatballs with vegetables. These evenings are very comforting.
KNOWING WHEN TO STOP By 10:30 I’ve cleaned up and I’m back at the computer in my home office. I continue reading emails and downloading documents until midnight, when I realize I have stopped being productive. I’m known for efficiency. I edit and absorb things fast. When that stops, I stop.
BOOKS For the next hour I read in bed. I like the transition of going into the bedroom rather than staying in the office. I feel like it’s a different environment. I only read nonfiction. Recently I’ve read “Midnight in Chernobyl,” “How to Be an Antiracist,” and “The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution.” I’ve always liked history. It gives me insights into things that have happened and new perspectives. By 2, I’m asleep.