EXPERT REACTION: Coronavirus - Answers to your latest questions on risk communications and fear-mongering

Embargoed until: Publicly released:

We asked you for more of your burning coronavirus questions. Below are experts answers to some common questions about risk communications and fear-mongering.

Organisation/s: The University of Sydney

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Professor Bruce Thompson is Dean of Health at Swinburne University

- There's been a lot of doctors who are not epidemiologists or virologists sharing questionable graphs and fear-mongering on social media. While doctors should be heard and their concerns relating to their own practice respected, how do we ensure only those qualified to comment on aspects of this virus that are complex are the voices breaking through and being given a platform

Overall, there has been a general consensus of the interpretation of the data. The Chief Medical Officer and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer are the central points of information and they are taking all the information from WHO and other central sources. That being said, this virus has a lot of similarities to other viruses, so standard universal precautions such as cleaning, social distancing and washing hands to stop the spread of the virus is common across all. What the CMO and government is doing is highly appropriate.

Last updated: 20 Mar 2020 4:55pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Julie Leask is a Professor in the Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Sydney. She is a social scientist whose research focuses on infectious disease and immunisation controversies and communication.
  • There's been a lot of doctors who are not epidemiologists or virologists sharing questionable graphs and fear-mongering on social media. While doctors should be heard and their concerns relating to their own practice respected, how do we ensure only those qualified to comment on aspects of this virus that are complex are the voices breaking through and being given a platform?

"Fill the gap – there is a lot of information right now but it’s not so much how much government says, but how relevant it is to people right now and how it helps them to anticipate and plan for what could be ahead.
 
Government should give journalists and the public better access to evidence informing their decision making. This could occur with more detailed information about what is underpinning key decisions. Health departments are working hard to provide a great deal of information, so it is not about volume as much as about the kind of information being provided and its relevance. People are clearly crying out for detailed rationales. This is more important than ever as we are at a crucial stage of people starting to shape their views on how this should be managed. Putting the current evidence into that picture will help bring people along.  It has been encouraging to see a little more transparency in the last few days. The AHPPC’s online update became much more detailed from the 17th March https://www.health.gov.au/news/australian-health-protection-principal-committee-ahppc-coronavirus-covid-19-statement-on-17-march-2020
 
Accept the realities – people are voraciously hungry for information now and unlike before, they have access to papers as they arrive. So citizens and experts are able to assess and critique evidence as it emerges. Social media gives many a voice. This is a two-edged sword because it democratises access to evidence but also brings confusion with so many apparently expert voices. We all need a bit of humility in recognising that the knowledge about COVID-19 is still emerging and what we think is right now may not be right next week. In any case this will change as government ramps-up the physical distancing measures.
 
Government should hold a steady course – with so many different voices and pressures, governments will need to continue to rely on the best available evidence and expertise. It is noteworthy to see the non-partisan approach recognising that emergencies are not the time for politics.
 
Recognise the field of expertise: Public health is a distinct field of expertise that people train in and cultivate years of expertise. Around the country every day, there are people managing small and large outbreaks. It is this capacity being used in the pandemic. Public health is the art and science of preventing disease in populations.  It brings together diverse fields including epidemiology, modelling, health economics, health services research, prevention, behavioural science, policy and so on. Public health isn’t that glamorous - it doesn’t have much ‘dash’ about it but it’s saving lives ten thousand at a time.

Last updated: 20 Mar 2020 4:46pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

News for:

Australia
NSW

Media contact details for this story are only visible to registered journalists.