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Glenda Gray: the woman heading up South Africa’s sub-team of Covid-19 pandemic research advisors

Glenda Gray

Professor Glenda E Gray’s CV is a thing to be marvelled at. One insight gleaned by skimming the 66-page document is not about the detail and variety of her illustrious career so much as that some people seem to live more, do more, think more, read more and write more in the same life span that the rest of us are, more or less, given.

Another insight is that there is no one word to describe Glenda Gray. “Activist” is the one that gets the spotlight for the purposes of this interview, but it’s only one among many of her labels.

She might have qualified as a doctor in the mid-1980s but that degree appears to have been simply an oiling and conditioning of the engine she was choosing to navigate the rough-terrain adventure of a life in the health sciences in South Africa.

She currently holds the position of CEO and president of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC). More germane to the current state of the world is that she chairs the research sub-committee on Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s team of 50 expert Covid-19 pandemic advisors.

In a career that spans three decades, she has been — and still is — a paediatrician, a researcher, a vaccine developer, a teacher, a mentor, a supervisor, a team leader, a manager, a collector and allocator of grants and funding for research and, throughout, an activist.

It feels miraculous to be able to get Gray to take an hour out of her day to talk about herself.

It’s noon on another beautiful autumn day in Cape Town and, for someone who is working 12 to 18-hour days, seven days a week, she looks fresh and unfrazzled — more like a social media influencer than a sleep-deprived scientist on the country’s Covid crisis crack team.

She admits she’s had to ease back on the coffee, that the craziness of being on 24/7 duty and the pressure of having to make high-stakes decisions on the hoof while operating under the National State of Disaster was starting to take its toll.

“At the beginning of the epidemic I was quite frenetic. We didn’t sleep, we didn’t eat. All we did was drink coffee.”

Just before the epidemic, the SAMRC had put together a coaching programme for its executive management committee. Since lockdown, Gray has had two Zoom sessions with the coach, who told her to cut back on the coffee, go out in the garden more and to take some time for herself – or risk burning out.

“I’ve got a treadmill in the garage and there’s a window that overlooks the washing line,” she says with a laugh. “So I go in and put my Bob Dylan on. I’ve gone back to early Bob Dylan. To listen to his lyrics again. I used to put pumping music on, but the coach told me to listen to music that’s more gentle.”

Gray is used to high pressure. She witnessed the ravaging genesis of the HIV epidemic in South Africa, when mothers and babies were deathly ill and dying at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto in the early nineties. Covid is the same, but different.

“It’s the same panic and sense of crisis but concertinaed into days and weeks. With HIV, the crisis unfolded over months and years. This epidemic is unfolding in hours and days.”

Since March, Gray and her colleagues have been working long hours. Calls go on late into Friday nights and only stop on Sundays at around 10 o’clock at night.

Because she is campaigning hard for South Africa to be included in vaccine development and trials — which would have enormous advantages for the country in terms of getting early access to the vaccine — she is on international groups with Zoom meetings happening at odd hours to accommodate scientists from around the globe in different time zones.

She also belongs to numerous WhatsApp groups with different focuses: science, policy formulation and, of course, activism.

Is she still an activist?

“If ‘activist’ equals ‘troublemaker’, then yes, I still think of myself as an activist,” she says, laughing.

“It’s important to be an activist. With every epidemic and with every disease, there are the political aspects that need to be highlighted. And even with Covid there’s stuff we have to be vocal about. About protecting the healthcare workers and making sure that they all have PPE. We have to be vocal about whether we have enough resources allocated in the right places. We have to be vocal that there is a crisis with testing. You have to be able to stand up and say ‘things are not right’ and make sure that they’re addressed and get focused on.”

As one gets older, it becomes increasingly important to continue acting as an activist because “if we have influence and we keep quiet then that is bad”.

From being a medical student involved in research and lobbying for the rights of all health workers, from doctors to hospital cleaners, and in active resistance against the apartheid government at sit-ins and marches, to president of a government-funded organisation, Gray has become, as she says, “part of the status quo”.

“But I still fervently believe in scientific and academic freedom and freedom of expression. If we see things are happening, it’s our job to make sure that society hears about them.

“With Covid, we’re all learning on the hoof. We’re feeling our way, but we have to get this right. The moment we see that we’ve gone off kilter or that something’s amiss, we need to be able to say, hey, maybe that looked like a good idea last week but things are different this week. Because that’s how fast things are changing. We have to remind people to be nimble and to respond as quickly as possible to the changing dynamics of the epidemic.”

Gray was the fifth of six children. Her mother was a teacher and her father a mine engineer who lived an itinerant life in towns like Hotazel, Kuruman, Stilfontein and Koffiebus.

“My father always had a great sense of humanity and he always had progressive views on the world. My mother was a kind, compassionate woman.”

The family spoke openly about apartheid issues because her father was progressive and raised his children to be.

The family had settled somewhat by the time she came along and she grew up “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Boksburg, the northern side where the mining activity and housing was.

Her family had always been liberal and as she entered her teens her brother was at Wits University and involved with the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), a strongly anti-apartheid organisation. Her brother included her in discussions about his activities and took her to communities where he was working.

Gray had always wanted to be a doctor and “the universe conspired to help” her, she says.

“The year I went to Wits medical school was an experimental year. They had more girls than ever and they had expanded their reach to different types of people — like me. I came from Boksburg High. I hadn’t done too badly, but in matric I didn’t do well. I didn’t do badly, but I certainly wasn’t a straight-A student. We had to write essays and do a whole lot of interviews where they asked us about controversial subjects like abortion and corporal punishment.”

Because of her family’s open approach to discussing issues, Gray was unafraid to air the views she’d formed on these matters and she feels this helped her get into Wits. Once she was in university it was hard.

“The first two years I was just lost. Then I got better and better as we got to the clinical years.”

She continued to hang around with progressive people, was part of the mixed-communes set from Berea and Hillbrow, and got recruited into the Health Workers’ Association.

She specialised in pediatrics and child health, did a post-doctorate fellowship in clinical epidemiology at Columbia University, worked in the trenches of the first devastating waves of HIV/Aids deaths in the 1990s, developed research and then developed a world-renowned research unit focused on HIV prevention and treatment. She became involved in clinical trial design, vaccine clinical development, socio-behavioural and translational research.

She has been a teacher and a supervisor. She has won so many awards and honours — including the Nelson Mandela Health and Human Rights Award and inclusion in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world and Forbes Africa’s Top 50 most influential women in Africa —  that they take up two pages of her CV.

She holds honours awards from three universities. She has published more than 200 research articles and is an A-rated South African researcher, which means she is a “leading international researcher”, a rating that is awarded by committees of peers and which is based on strict criteria.

Which of her roles does she prefer or like the most? She briefly discusses each as though trying to see for herself which suits her best, as though she’s never imagined them apart from one another. She concludes: “All of them.”

Gray’s other important role has been “parent” and she’s been lucky, she says, to have spent lockdown with her three children. Her 26-year-old daughter has just completed her PhD in medical anthropology. Her middle child, who is 23, completed her honours degree in English literature last year and her 16-year-old son is in Grade 11.

Remarkably, she still has contact with some of the children she helped bring into the world during the worst of the Aids crisis, as well as with some of their mothers and grandmothers. Many of those children have now graduated or are working and, as long as they stay on their meds, will have long and healthy lives. This is pleasing to see, but she is under no illusions about the fact that many of them suffer severe depression, even a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, from having been the first generation to be born with HIV.

Epidemics devastate communities, economies and health systems. For decades. Which possibly makes her less immune to fears around our current crisis than the average layperson.

“I do have panic attacks at night about this epidemic,” she admits. “I wake up in the middle of the night with my heart racing. I worry about our country. I’m worried about our healthcare workers and our hospitals and our readiness. Our system was fragile before we started, and this is going to tip us over the edge. I’m also worried that we’ve stopped diagnosing TB. While our eyes are on this side, a whole lot of shit is happening on the other side.

“You just need to walk outside to know the world is different. Everyone’s wearing a mask. There’s this impending tragedy on our doorstep and we’re watching it unfold. And that, for me, is terrifying.

“I’m all for lifting the restrictions and getting the economy to be rebooted, but at the same time we have to save lives. And that’s a hard ask. If Germany struggles and Italy failed and Britain is failing and America is devastated, South Africa is not exceptional. Even though we like to believe we are exceptional, this is going to be one hard epidemic.”

Is there anything that comforts her, rather than terrifies her?

“We are going to find a vaccine for Covid-19. We need to find a vaccine and we need to be part of a global endeavour,” she says emphatically, “and one nice thing about this epidemic is that I have never seen so many doctors, scientists and advocates all working this hard together.

“So what comforts me is that everyone has put aside their differences and, like it was when HIV was a crisis, everyone is working together again. What is beautiful is that this epidemic has rekindled ubuntu and camaraderie in all South Africans. Everyone is working around the clock. No one is resting on their laurels.”

Since she has so many titles and has done so many things, has she ever thought about what she’d like to be remembered for?

A long “um” makes it clear she hasn’t thought about this before, but suddenly she knows exactly what she’d prefer to be remembered for: “For finding an HIV vaccine. If I could achieve anything, it would be to be known among the many scientists who failed and failed and failed and eventually succeeded in finding a vaccine for HIV.

“But I’d also settle for being known for helping find a vaccine for Covid-19.” DM/MC

Original article published in the Daily Maverick/Maverick Citizen

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