The Covid-19 crisis has spurred on an avalanche of news, much of it confusing and inconsistent. The need for good quality science communication has been stronger than ever, as new information can have a direct impact on how people perceive and react to the spread of the virus. Communication by 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. For the first time after the World War II, people across the globe have been so united in fear as in this months, when the Covid-19 pandemic have dominated headlines and daily realities. People have been fearful of catching the virus and anxious about spreading it. And they are now worried about its economic and social impacts. When people are scared, they look for expert advice which is relevant to their own situations. Therefore, in these months, virologists, epidemiologists and researchers who work on communicable diseases have been in high demand on media. Within January 2020, the first full month in which the outbreak was known, Time recorded 41,000 English-language articles containing the term “coronavirus”, of which 19,000 made it to headlines. This was compared with the Kivu Ebola epidemic, which had 1,800 articles and 700 headlines in August 2018. In these months, people have been constantly receiving information from many – and often conflicting – sources. They have overwhelmed by a deluge of data and opinions. Facing information overload, they have found it difficult to decide what to read, who to listen to and who to trust. The current Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented case of public communication of science happening in a compressed time frame and much of advice is drawn from what experts have learned from earlier health crises. For science communicators to be effective, best practice principles need to be applied to the design of their messages, the choice of who conveys those messages, as well as the tone and timing of messages. However, these principles have been often missed, especially with regard to how they should have applied during a public health crisis of this magnitude.
An expert is somebody who has a broad and deep competence in terms of knowledge, skills and experience through practice and education in a particular field.
During this epidemic, some “experts”, without empathy, did not to understand the concerns of the people who were receiving the message and have been often meant as bureaucrats. In some countries, some “experts” have invaded talk shows and have presented conflicting and confusing messages. They have been probably invited to talk shows more for the institutional role that they play or for their impact on social networks, than for their skills, competences and merits (it is very easy to evaluate the impact factor or the h-hindex of a scientist). At least this is a common perception to many healthcare workers who have fought Covid-19 on front line.
We should get used to evaluating experts for their skills, competences and merits. However for people it is not easy to identify the skills of a scientist, but it is probably easier for the journalists who intervene experts or for those who invite them to talk shows.
The Covid-19 pandemic reminds us starkly of how much we depend on science and scientific expertise for finding solutions to acute challenges. It also highlights the invaluable role of science communicators who are able to empower people with relevant, timely and clear messages that help to navigate their lives during a challenging time.