The coronavirus crisis has spurred on an avalanche of news, much of it confusing and inconsistent. The need for good quality science communication is stronger than ever, as new information can have a direct impact on how people perceive and react to the spread of the virus.
An “infodemic” is said to spread alongside the Covid-19 pandemic. The word was used by the World Health Organization’s General Director, Tedros Adhanom, warning against an excessive amount of information about the new coronavirus and the disease it causes, since it can make it even harder to manage the crisis sweeping the globe.
But, along with quantity of news overwhelming people, quality of such communication is an issue, too. Preliminary results in the QUEST project have highlighted some characteristics of quality and effectiveness a good science communication should have. And communication about the current emergency is definitely a type of science communication, since it is mainly based on scientific questions about SARS-Cov-2 and medical topics concerning Covid-19. Or, as one could say, it is science communication at its best, at the point where its quality is the key, also in terms of response to the emergency. In a crisis, a good or bad communication can make the difference in how people perceive and, consequently, behave, easing or controlling the spread of the disease and its consequences.
Science communication in the surge of a pandemic is mainly crisis and risk communication. It keeps its own features, such as the need for clarity, but gets much more peculiarities. One of these is uncertainty, and the challenge of communicating it without impairing trust, which in hard times is even more critical than usually.
Quality of science communication in “time of peace” needs adherence to authoritative and reliable sources. When a new infectious threat emerges, though, as it happened with SARS-Cov-2, most information tends to be confusing and inconsistent. Scientists need time to come to well-founded conclusions, while decisions need to be taken at once. Over the last months, many groups have been publishing in preprint, open-access platforms, such as BioRXiv and medRxiv. On the one hand, this provides priceless help to the advancement of research, because it makes it possible for scientists all over the world to have access to new knowledge as soon as it is gathered by other colleagues, speeding their work. On the other hand, these kinds of publication typically go out without a peer-review process by other experts in the field. Despite the disclaimer clearly reported on top to these studies, it’s difficult for journalists and the public to remember that their content might not be as reliable as a study checked before being published in a scientific journal. Some of these studies were withdrawn a few hours or days after they were published. Fact-checking, in such a volatile context, is harder than ever.
Experts often cannot help a lot, either. Each of them can have his/her own point of view, according to their specific competence, and ignore or overlook the other pieces of such a complex jigsaw puzzle that includes sociological, psychological, economic and many other aspects. Some can unintentionally be tempted to pass off their own opinion as scientific truth, overlooking doubts and debates in the scientific community. This can have the contrary effect: to show these disagreements to a public, who erroneously may be used to think of science as a sum of dogmas, can feed bewilderment and mistrust.
The suggestion to have emotional, engaging and related to real-life messages for an effective science communication is easy to achieve during a pandemic, when most people are living with the fear and seeing the situation first-hand, suffering themselves from the concrete consequences of what is happening around. The mathematical concept “R0” has a strong impact on the possibility to loosen the lockdown. The immunological response of the human body to the virus will determine if a herd immunity can be achieved, and maybe a vaccine, too, so that the nightmare can be overcome. A genetic mutation in the virus’s RNA could imply a worsening, or a relief, in its virulence, and so reflect into the number of friends and relatives doomed to illness, or even death.
Communication by authorities and media has a strong impact on people’s behaviour, because people are eager to know what to do, in order to protect themselves and their family, and want to know how to do it. They are reached out with less effort than in quiet times, because they need and look for information regarding scientific issues. Trying to understand difficult topics, though, they can also be mistaken, or be more easily at the mercy of quack doctors and self-appointed experts. While in time of peace it is hard to get the public’s attention on scientific issues, and for science communication to have an impact on their life, during a crisis communication needs to be very careful as any piece of information can drive behaviours, sometime unwanted.
That’s why a strategic communication plan with clear objectives is needed more than ever. Unpreparedness can be dangerous and is not allowed. Transparency is inalienable to keep trust, but in some cases must be handled with care, not to cause panic. Because one last, but not least, characteristic of a good science communication is also to consider social responsibility: in this case, in the end, this could be measured in human lives.
Photo by Nicolas DUPREY on Flickr