By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan
FEAR, anxiety, misinformation, myths and pseudoscience is probably spreading faster than the actual COVID-19 pandemic. WHO calls this infodemic. This is a serious issue as all these play a big role in delaying efforts in flattening the curve and breaking the infection chain.
For many, this is the first pandemic in our lives. The level of biosafety, biosecurity and lockdowns are extraordinary experiences. On the other hand, many would not have given second thought to virus, RNA and exponential curve prior to the pandemic. These were lingos meant for only scientists. But when the pandemic hit hard on everyone’s health, education and socioeconomic activities, the public started looking for science information.
The problem was, either there was too much information or a mix of myths, science and pseudoscience that was confusing. Fear and anxiety also drove rational out of the window. Masks were worn indiscriminately, depriving supply to the front liners; warm water was said to kill the virus giving false assurance; and neem leaves is said to be a cure among other misinformation.
In the time of a health crisis like this we need scientists who are able to effectively communicate not just to the public but to politicians to enable evidence-based decisions are made, and fear and pseudoscience are kept at bay. The exponential growth of infectious disease with high transmission rate requires full cooperation from the public to break the chain of infection. This is where the understanding of mode of transmission and infection, measures to break the infection chain and the need to do contact tracing come are critical.
It does not suffice to request the public to stay at home and maintain a social distance. Scientific explanations are important to ensure compliance. Scientists and doctors are the best spokespersons or communicators as they are high up in the credibility ladder given it is a public health crisis. They are now forced to explain science in a language of a 12-year old. There is a surge in public and media interest in science. This is the best time for science communicators to create science literacy among the public.
I hope COVID-19 pandemic will change the way we communicate science and public health to society in a lasting way. It should not take a crisis to reach out to the public. Science should be placed in the public domain on a regular basis. My wish list is for science communication to stay on the centre stage even after the crisis as everything around us is linked to science. It is time more funding for science communication, training workshops for scientists and media engagement is allocated and these are made as part of the scientists role as “civic scientists”.
Civic scientist is a term introduced by Neal Lane, and former director of the National Science Foundation and science advisor to President Clinton, as “someone who uses his or her knowledge, accomplishments and skills to help bridge the gap between science and society.”
We need more “civic scientists” to fight this war. More important and effective than wearing a mask, if only the public knew that asymptomatic people are not necessarily healthy and they can spread the disease, we could have flatten the curve. I also hope the public’s interest in science will not fade away after the crisis.
** A trained science communicator, Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan is the co-founder of SMC Malaysia. She has a strong penchant for filling the void in the field of science communication in the developing world. Her aim is to shape public opinion, enable the development of science-based policies and regulations through capacity building programmes, and promote STEM education and career.
Bionotes of expert
Listed as the 100 most influential person in biotechnology in the world by Scientific American WorldView (2015); listed in the honorific list of Women in Biotechnology Law and Regulation as part of Biotechnology Law Report 2015 published by Mary Ann Liebert Inc, USA; and won the 2010 Third World Academy of Science Regional Prize for Public Understanding of Science for East, Southeast Asia and Pacific Region.
Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan ventured into science communication upon joining the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) in 2003 and pursued a Ph.D. in this field. Founder of The Petri Dish in 2011, South East Asia’s first science newspaper, she has a strong penchant for filling the void in the field of science communication in the developing world. She plays a key role in communicating science, biotechnology with an aim to shape public opinion, enable the development of science-based policies and regulations through capacity building programmes, and promote STEM education and career. She is also the Global Coordinator at International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) and a UN FAO International Consultant for their Biosafety Project in Sri Lanka.
**All previous posts about COVID-19 here: https://sciencemediacentremalaysia.com/tag/covid-19/