Sending the right message

Listening to scientists can lead to better management of the pandemic

Updated - July 15, 2020 01:36 am IST

Published - July 15, 2020 12:15 am IST

FILE PHOTO: A sales woman wearing a face shield and a mask arranges gold bangles at a jewelry showroom as few stores opened after few restrictions were lifted, during an extended lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Kolkata, India, May 26, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A sales woman wearing a face shield and a mask arranges gold bangles at a jewelry showroom as few stores opened after few restrictions were lifted, during an extended lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Kolkata, India, May 26, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/File Photo

Miscommunication has rocked numerous aspects of the response to COVID-19. Sometimes, scientists who ought to provide clear, unambiguous public health information have failed to do so because of political interference. At other times, even when key public health messages were clearly articulated, some reporters misperceived grey areas and ongoing debates as scientific chaos and not as open questions that may simply require more evidence to resolve. There has also been mistrust in the efficacy of medical management and cynicism among those who follow public health messages from governments regarding the pandemic.

Communicating vital information

Some people are seen removing their masks to speak to others in close proximity or even to cough, but otherwise wear them diligently in public as a badge of civic honour. The message that is entirely lost is that even simple masks can largely stop expelled droplets from a person’s nose or mouth; thus, we protect one another from infection when we wear masks. People suspected of having flu-like symptoms are shunned or, worse, physically assaulted. On the other hand, there seems to be little or no awareness that asymptomatic cases may be everywhere.

Also read | Trump falsely says 99% coronavirus cases benign

U.S. President Donald Trump has been one of the worst possible communicators of vital information during the crisis. A few Americans reportedly drank bleach in response to his suggestion that it would perhaps work inside the body. There were also open disagreements between Mr. Trump and medical experts who shared the stage with him during daily media briefings.

In any crisis where science matters, messages that ask people to change their behaviour have to be very clear to be understood and followed. Providing instructions on medication, treatment choices, physical distancing, testing and wearing masks requires elaborating on the reasons, so that people understand the logic. Instead of trying to manage the news, providing sufficient funding for public health research and allowing scientists to work freely and give independent reports to the press without censorship are vital to a good health system. Transparency and clarity on what public health proposals are being considered would build faith and confidence in the government. The social vetting of scientific claims is necessary and can only happen with transparency. People do not expect infallibility from their governments, but they do seek accountability. Instead, all but a few countries have misled people on numbers of cases and testing protocols.

Climate change communication

Some commentators have wondered whether COVID-19 and climate change communication matters are alike. While some aspects seem similar, I believe they are quite different, although there are insights to be learned from experience with the latter.

For several years, a few scientists and the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry have deliberately muddied the facts and the messaging on climate change. Although the science is clear — that rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels have raised average global temperature over more than a century — that message has been deliberately and systematically eroded in some quarters through funds from private parties and corporations that are merely concerned about their profits.

For instance, in the U.S., the Koch Brothers are major sponsors of smokescreens concerning climate change. The Koch Family Foundations are reported to have spent over $125 million to finance 92 groups that have attacked climate change science and policy solutions, from 1997 to 2017. In an article in The New York Times (July 10, 2019), one learns that funds even from corporations, like Google and Amazon, which have publicly committed themselves to supporting climate change action, were funnelled into groups like the Competitive Enterprise, a Washington-based think tank that challenges anthropogenic climate change.

Lawyers and experts who previously worked with the tobacco industry and helped them lie about tobacco being seriously harmful to health have been funded by conservative think tanks like the George C. Marshall Institute to support the climate change denial industry. In Merchants of Doubt , Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway argue that these groups have operated by sowing doubt although scientific consensus has already been reached. Their strategy has been to maintain the controversy and therefore keep any fake confusion alive. By roping in scientists, establishing research groups and appointing spokespersons who maintain doubt, they are co-opting scientific trappings without deploying scientific logic and methods. The same approach has been applied to tobacco smoking, DDT, acid rain, the ozone hole and some nutrition studies. These activities therefore end up looking and sounding like legitimate science.

While the focus of the confusion in the case of climate change is deliberate and planned, in the case of COVID-19, scientists did not know much about the SARS-CoV-2 virus when the pandemic broke. There appears nothing to be gained from deliberately obfuscating the message. But those who consider economic losses to be a graver danger than lost lives through COVID-19 are protesting. Will elite interests then try to muddle the science deliberately?

Responsibility towards the public

Communicating science means explaining details to the public without condescension, admitting mistakes, promptly rebutting pseudo-science, being guided by data and interpreting the logic for policies undertaken. Instructions provided by scientists may be inconvenient and fail to take note of election cycles. Even when the situation is long-drawn-out, as in the COVID-19 pandemic, listening to scientists and putting their advice into practice can lead to better management of the pandemic, as seen in New Zealand and some Southeast Asian countries.

It is essential that those who can influence decisions, such as civil servants and scientists, along with the politicians making decisions, be guided by a sense of responsibility towards the public.

Sujatha Byravan is a scientist who studies technology, science and development policy

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