Dr.Catherine Kyobutungi is a distinguished Ugandan epidemiologist and research leader who currently serves as the Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Center, a pan-African research institution headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.
In an interview with Nation, Kyobutangi spoke about her inspiration for public health matters, why there is need for a reboot of the Covid-19 response, family and more.
You stopped clinical practice and joined public health. What motivated you?
Clinical practice in a broken healthcare system is very frustrating. It’s frustrating to save the life of a patient only for them to die a few months down the line.
I started clinical practice at the height of HIV/Aids epidemic before ARVs became available, and I felt that I was only prolonging lives for an inevitable tragic end.
While things have improved, it can also be frustrating to treat a child for malaria only for them to die from pneumonia a few months later. Public health is intended to change the environment in which an individual lives so they don’t fall sick in the first instance. I felt that I would be more useful there, preventing illness and promoting health, rather than treating diseases.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, is the country on the right track, or what do you think can be done differently?
I honestly don’t think that the country is on the right track — if you look at the numbers and the testing. The test positivity rates range from 10-25 per cent.
We need to reach testing levels that give us positivity rates below five per cent; health care workers are getting sick, that’s completely unacceptable. It shows a failure in getting priorities right – whether it’s in providing protocols for dealing with Covid-19 in all facilities and failure to protect healthcare workers. I could go on, but hardly anything in the response is working well, and the steady increase in confirmed cases shows that.
What can be done differently?
Since May, I have stated that there is need for a reboot of the Covid-19 response. The response seems to be stuck in a single gear since March. No country or region has emerged from Covid-19 without two critical conditions — an efficient testing strategy where people can get a test when and where they want it, supported by contract tracing and isolation. We need to test more people than we are doing.
Are you involved in any Covid-19 research? If yes, tell us more
By choice, as an institution, we are prioritising non-Covid19 research. Kenya and the world in general have many other problems that are more long standing and are actually being worsened by Covid-19. Where opportunities arise, we will get involved in Covid-19 research, but we are not actively chasing those opportunities.
What are some of the achievements/ changes you have brought at the centre since you were appointed ED in 2017?
I instituted a culture shift to create an institutional environment where everyone can thrive as human beings and as professionals. The shift has many facets including policies and procedures, but also subtle ones like the way we behave. The shift is focused on maintaining excellence, speaking up and improving work-life balance.
What does your job entail?
A lot of things. I have to keep an eye on several balls. That our finances are in good shape, that we have enough staff with the right skills, that staff are happy and thriving, that our partners and funders are happy, that our systems in research, IT, finance are working, among others. Now with the Covid-19, my life is a series of Zoom calls.
What would you advise young people aspiring to follow in your footsteps?
Plan your career, know where you want to be and map out what you need to do to get there. After that, identify allies that will help you to actualise your plan. These may be colleagues, mentors, or people you have never even met. Also, embrace your strengths when they are pointed out to you. I never set out to be a leader, but at different points in time, I was told that I was a good leader, so I started thinking more about leadership and made a conscious choice to embrace it.
Who is most the influential person in your career?
My parents. They gave me strong values that have been invaluable in my career. Hard work, integrity, empathy, respect and many others. They also encouraged me at a very early stage to never see myself as incapable of doing anything just because I was a girl.
What principles do you stand for?
Integrity. I am also objective; it is hard for me to sugar coat or hide the truth as I see it. I am also respectful – I believe every person should be treated the way we would like to be treated.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
My work is very stressful so in my free time I do stress-free things. I spend time with my little ones, watch TV cooking shows, fashion, Nollywood – nothing stressful like football.
Your dream holiday destination?
I go on holiday to rest, I don’t like thrill-seeking adventures. So any place where I can sleep in and still get breakfast is good for me.
Tell us about your family?
My husband is a scientist as well; he is a malaria specialist based in the US. I have a 10-year old daughter and a two-year-old son (*ladies, biological clock is a scam). I come from a large family of seven, all based in Uganda.
How do you manage to juggle between family and politics?
It is not easy, but what has been helpful is to accept that I am not super human. One cannot be a super mum, super wife, super scientist and super leader. You have to pick the things you will be super at and be comfortable with that choice. For the rest, get help and manage expectations at work and home.
“The greatest tragedy in life is not death, but a life without a purpose”. Find that purpose; I believe we were put on earth not just to be, but to live purposeful lives that create health, joy, and fulfillment for others.