International reflections on communicating Covid-19

Lectures and events
Publication Date
Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE
Talat Yaqoob FRSE
Alexa Waud
Dr Ruth Lightbody
Courtney Addison

This event was part of the RSE’s summer events programme, Curious.
Find out more on the Curious website.

Experts from across the globe talk about how public narrative and communication on Covid-19 has taken place in their country/state.

As part of the RSE’s Post Covid-19 Futures Commission, The Democratic Society were commissioned to prepare a review exploring international approaches to communication and public engagement during the Covid-19 pandemic. This event seeks to instigate a global conversation, and will mark the launch of the review by bringing together experts from across the globe to speak on how public narrative and communication on coronavirus have taken place in their country/state.

The Democratic Society will provide a short presentation on their findings and a summary video introducing the report, which will be followed by a panel discussion exploring what has been done well, what could have been done better, what we can learn from other countries/states and what we need to remember moving forward into recovery.


Please note transcripts are automatically generated, so may feature errors.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 0:00
Good morning, everyone. I’m Anne Glover and I’m the chair of the Post Covid-19 Futures Commission and past president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. So let me give you a very, very brief background about the RSE, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, we have some 1600 or so fellows who are elected on the basis of their excellence of contribution to society, in Scotland and beyond. And interestingly, for a national academy, they come from a very broad range of areas, so arts, humanities, sciences, but also from public life, from business, from the creative industries, and so on. So a very broad range of expertise which we can rely upon. We were founded in 1783. But our strapline our purposes, ‘knowledge made useful’, and so that excellence of our fellows is brought to bear for the benefit of Scotland. Now, today’s event is about having a global conversation about COVID, how COVID has been communicated. And one of the reasons that we’re hosting this event is because the Royal Society of Edinburgh, launched the post Covid-19 Futures Commission last year, bringing together commissioners who are fellows and others who have been co opted, in order to see how Scotland can come out of the pandemic in a way better than it went into it. So what can we learn and what can we do in the future. And this Post Covid-19 Futures Commission, we decided just to identify four areas that we were going to work on. And four areas because we wanted to avoid overlap, where others were looking at additional issues. And the four areas that we chose, were looking at national resilience. We looked at data science and evidence. We looked at public services, inclusive public services, and the last area public debate and participation. And really, that’s the main part of this particular event today and your opportunity to take part in that debate. And so what I would like to do is I’d like to hand over to one of our commissioners, who lead on the public debate and participation at Talat Yaqoob. Talat, is a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She previously was the chief executive of Equate. And she’s now an independent consultant and researcher, also a campaigner, and, and writer, and someone who is particularly interested in equality for women and race. So Talat, can I hand over to you to tell us about this part of the Commission?

Video 3:06
Thank you very much Anne. Thank you for the introduction. As I said, my name is Talat Yaqoob. And I’m the co chair of the working group as part of the Post Covid-19 Futures Commission of the RSE. We’re focusing on public debate and participation in this working group, we are trying to examine the extent to which the public in Scotland has been equal partners in the decisions that have been made around COVID-19, how we have responded, and whether we have responded adequately, particularly for those who are furthest away from access to opportunity, power and wealth. Part of the working group is also looking at public debate that includes misinformation or disinformation includes how we have talked amongst ourselves and the general public about COVID-19. And how we have engaged in or fail to engage in public health messaging, has it worked for us and to what extent. We’re looking to build upon what we have done already in Scotland. We’re looking to identify what has happened, well, what could have been improved, to make ourselves better ready for any future crisis. Part of the work that we are discussing today as part of this international research we have done is focused on that public debate and participation and what we can learn beyond Scotland beyond the UK from nations who have also been going through the same crisis because it has been a global crisis, a global pandemic, and it’s important for us to learn from others and have solidarity to prepare ourselves better as a as a united world in any crisis we see in the future. We held closed roundtables in April 2021 with international experts, which focused on the theme of how have we communicated with citizens and involve them in the country’s pandemic response. Alongside roundtable the Royal Society of Edinburgh and commissioned the Democratic Society to carry out an international review exploring approaches taken by different countries to COVID-19. We wanted to find out how they communicated and how they engage the public. The report has been launched today, and is on the Royal Society of Edinburgh website. A rapporteur report from the roundtable will also be available to read on the RSE website. And Dr Ruth Lightbody is part of the discussions today we’ll be discussing more of that. All of this was delivered in hectic times. And it shouldn’t be seen as a catch all for everything that’s happened across the world, and COVID-19. Much of what we are learning is still to be produced details still to be gathered. But we have a good idea, a good review of what has been happening across the world and what we can learn from. So to find out more about this, I’m going to pass over now to Alexa Waud from the Democratic Society, who provide an overview of the international review they’re carried out and the report they have produced. And please remember to think of questions that you can ask and engage in discussion after she has done a pass over to Alexa now.

Alexa Waud 6:12
Thank you Talat, I think we’re actually going to be watching a video that goes alongside the report launch before I speak.

Video 6:19
Democratic Society was commissioned by the Royal Society of Edinburgh to conduct a rapid review, exploring international approaches to communication and participation during the COVID pandemic. as case studies we looked at Belgium, Brazil, Finland, Canada, Ghana, New Zealand, South Africa, and Taiwan. It turns out that communication was used to drive participation. But participation was largely understood to mean compliance with national efforts.

Video 6:50
Science based communication, or informing, educating and raising awareness on science related topics, was mainly carried out by public health officials to convey the seriousness of the pandemic. Science communication was also used to justify lockdown measures and encourage the public to follow the rules and regulations.

Video 7:13
There was a lot of information broadcast to the public from official sources. But citizen participation in helping design the crisis response and being part of decision making was uncommon. This basically means there was a lack of conversations dialogue and collaborative decision making. But when we did see it, it was thanks to the use of tried and tested networks, such as community health workers in Brazil and South Africa,

Video 7:39
Social media influencers in Finland or the Maori community rallying together to organise a tailored response in New Zealand. What also came through the research was that pandemic responses cannot rely solely on the expertise of public health officials, but need to include citizens.

Video 7:59
This will help create a more human strategy that factors in everyday lived experience, including elements of creativity and humour. This can be done through democratic dialogue and debate, not enough of which took place during the pandemic. So, to make rapid, collective decisions in times of crisis, it is crucial to invest in equitable, collaborative and participatory decision making structures both beforehand and continuously. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, we use these learnings to stimulate improvement in public debate and participation.

Alexa Waud 8:39
So I’ve been working on the report, which is launching alongside today’s event. Since February, along with the report, we created a video that you just watched which my colleague Annie Cook was behind. Thanks, Annie. I’m going to spend the next five minutes expanding on the research that was woven into the video. I’m going to spend the next five minutes expanding on the research summary that was woven into the video on how and why we conducted the research and highlight a couple of examples. This is a teaser, which will hopefully pique your interest and then you can get all the details from the full version of the report. This report is firstly, a rapid review, focusing on the international approaches to science communication and engagement, specifically COVID-19 communication and engagement. I’m not a science communicator insofar as it’s not a professional title that I can wear on my name tag. I am a deliberative democracy practitioner, and a researcher interested in the interface between science most often climate in my case, and politics. Part of my job with the Democratic Society, a networked organisation working across Europe to strengthen democracy, is to create spaces for communicating science. Ideally, these spaces are spaces where thorough, nuanced discussions amongst members of the public are tethered to scientific evidence and decision making power, i.e. democratic spaces. There are, of course, questions about what democracy looks like in a crisis, where the utterance of emergency shifts us away from democratic debate into an arena of unilateral and decisive leadership. What does this mean in an extended crisis, an emergency with fatigue, one over the guise of science being able to tell us what to do disintegrates over time. These are all questions that were raised by the literature we reviewed and the interviews we conducted as part of this research. We collected much of the data through desk research, working through journal, articles, reports, government websites, and articles from established media outlets. Given the emergent nature of the topic, data was supplemented where possible by interviews with academics, practitioners, and other experts, already a part of democratic societies and the RSEs network. These were semi structured interviews, and were video calls. So I suppose they were also desk research to some extent, we interviewed 13 public health communication and participation experts. We also considered the discussions that were held at the two international roundtables that Talat mentioned. In this review, we were interested in approaches to communication and participation in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with particular attention to innovative practices related to public health, messaging, and engagement, such as combating misinformation and disinformation, addressing structural inequalities, and the implications for democracy and the social contract. We were looking at eight case studies, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Ghana, New Zealand, South Africa, and Taiwan. So, with this in mind, I’m going to spend the next two minutes expanding on one of the findings that was raised in the video that finding being the implied relationship between science communication, and participation that came through in our interviews and workshops, and then I’m going to very briefly give two examples. When we embarked on this project, we were thinking about participation in terms of decision making structures and governance in terms of helping design the crisis response. Instead of broadcasting information outward to the public sphere, we had our eyes open for a back and forth dialogue around public policy responses to COVID-19. However, we wanted to learn how communication and participation were understood in each of the national contexts, so we left it open to interpretation. As it turns out, participation was not understood as shaping those rules and regulations. But instead, as equating to compliance with the rules and regulations participation in the national effort. The focus on science communication was to demonstrate the severity of the crisis, allowing people to understand and therefore comply with the rules in place. It was often based on an information deficit model of communication with serious limits, many of which were highlighted by our interview participants. Of course, this was not across the board. I don’t have much time, but I want to quickly highlight two examples that made use of tried and tested networks and some back and forth dialogue. In Canada, there were some existing programmes, the digital citizens initiative and a federal campaigns that were tied to the 2019 federal election that were already operating in the country to combat disinformation. The digital citizen initiative was an existing programme focused on combating anti scientific sentiments, and original focus was on climate change. Because of the timing of when the previous Canadian federal government election fell, right before the pandemic, there were several information and ad campaigns connected to debunking fake news.

Alexa Waud 14:02
When the pandemic hit, the Canadian government added additional funding into these programmes and encourage them to switch gears and focus on combating disinformation in the COVID 19 pandemic. In Brazil, we heard of an interesting initiative in a municipality, where community health workers who are going through their neighbourhoods, collected fake news circulating through the week and submitted it to the local health authority with this information that was coming in through existing networks and inputs, the health authority processed it and got together some answers so that the mayor could go around in a vehicle and drive through the municipality one day a week and start sharing why people should be listening to this information as opposed to that information and having a bit of a back and forth dialogue. So there was input and reuse of existing tried and tested networks for that. I’ll leave you with this final thought. This research identified opportunities for creating a space for dialogue and debate in the midst of the pandemic. It highlights the importance of investment in advance of crises in equitable, collaborative and participatory decision making structures so that these opportunities can be seized upon at a panel a few months ago, that I was also on science journalist Philip Ball ended his talk by saying that COVID-19 has taken the lid off of science revealing what it is and what it isn’t, what it can do what it cannot do. At Democratic Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, we were asking what public dialogue and governance structures can exist in that space that’s been revealed? Answers to that question are peppered throughout the pages of the review. So I hope that you can take a look. Thank you.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 15:44
Alexa, thank you very much for that. And for those of us who are joining, just to remind you that you can see that whole report on the RSE website if you would like to see more of the detail. So first of all, what I would like to do then is to introduce our panel. And so we’re going to have a discussion around communication of COVID, and how that happened differently in different places. So this is an international event. And I’m very pleased to welcome first of all, Courtney Addison. So Courtney is a Lecturer, from the Centre for Science in Society, Te Herenga Waka, which is the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. So it’s late in the evening for Courtney. So Courtney, thank you for joining us. And you could turn your video on now, please, if that’s possible. So welcome to Courtney. Secondly, I’d like to welcome Dr. Kye Mohd Hanafiah and Kye is Senior Research Officer, currently seconded to the Burnet Institute in Melbourne in Australia, but also senior lecturer at the University Sains in Malaysia. So we’ve got two birds for one stone here, we’ve got a perspective from Malaysia and Australia, so New Zealand, Malaysia and Australia so far. And then I’d like to welcome Dr. Ruth Lightbody, who’s a lecturer in politics at Glasgow Caledonian University, in Department of Social Sciences. Ruth’s research focuses on deliberative democracy and public participation. So absolutely central to our discussion today. And she’s been involved in projects around Scotland, including those involving citizens juries were citizens discuss events such as, for example, looking at wind power. And more recently, I think, Ruth, you’ve also looked at how well the role of experts in giving evidence for deliberative processes so we have Scotland on our panel as well. And then finally, a warm welcome to Professor John Gyapong, who’s Vice Chancellor at the University of Health and Allied Sciences in Ghana. John’s background is having trained in medicine as a doctor, but also has done an MSc at the School of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, particularly looking around infectious diseases and epidemiology. So again, absolutely crucial for our thinking around response to COVID. So those are our expert panellists. And what I would like to do is just to ask you one or two questions in particular. So what I would ask all of you to think about is, what would you say that you think that your own nations have done particularly well, in the narrative and communication around COVID? And what might have been done better? And actually, Courtney, I’m going to come to you first and ask you what you think New Zealand has done well, and I’m particularly mindful of almost the global example that people hold New Zealand up for and seeing how well it’s done, but that might not be absolutely everybody’s feeling in New Zealand. It’s just what we hear elsewhere. So Courtney, what do you think you’ve done well, or not so well?

Courtney Addison 19:44
Yeah, thank you so much Anne. You’re right. It’s not everybody’s opinion in New Zealand, but there is certainly wide admiration for the way that government has handled communications but also our COVID response here. I think you can sort of break this down three aspects. One is the format. One is the people involved and one is the actual content of their communications. So in terms of format, New Zealand implemented, what ended up being a sort of four week level four lockdown, it’s one of the most extreme lockdowns in the world. But it did achieve an elimination strategy for COVID. And during that period, we had these daily briefings where our prime minister Jacinda Ardern and the Director General of Health would present live on television, the daily case numbers, how we were doing, other relevant updates. It was punctual, it was a very reliable cast of characters that people were seeing. And that format really became routine for people as we went through this really extreme national event. So for me, it was critical. The characters were also important. People describe our prime minister Jacinda Ardern as seeming like a human being, which seems like something you shouldn’t have to point out. But I think it’s not necessarily the norm. She engaged very empathetically with people. And she also engaged with some of the scientific evidence. So we have photos of her sort of holding graphs up showing, you know, some of the data that they’re actually basing their political decision making on. And similarly, our Director General of Health was seen as someone who was really on top of the facts. He always had papers in front of them, which is something that the people we interviewed talked about as a sign for why they trusted him like he had his material there. And he too, was seen as a sort of genuine, honest, transparent human being. And then that content as well, the extra stuff that they were talking about, right. It was always justified, they explained the decisions that they were making. And people felt that what they had to do as citizens as part of a national COVID response was clear. And that was outlined in documentation. But it was also reiterated really usefully through those daily briefings.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 22:00
Okay, so one of the things that you you mentioned, there was, it’s about participation, and I noticed that your Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern talked about the team of 5 million. So that it was everyone was involved, was that important?

Courtney Addison 22:16
It was really important. So I’ve got colleagues Rebecca Priestley, and Alex Beatty, who are actually analysing the sort of content of those communications and the team of 5 million worked really well as a slogan because New Zealand is a country with a rich sporting history, we all know what it’s like to be part of a team. Sports itself has a moral valence right enjoins us to behave in a particular way for our teammates. So it really pull people together as part of this collective enterprise that had a very clear goal. And there were rules to the game, like everybody knows how sports works. So that metaphor was really effective. And it did, when interviewing people ongoingly, and people speak about feeling a part of that community and feeling like they wanted to chip in but other people. That slogan also came under fire, when a lot of expat New Zealanders had a hard time getting back in the country over the course of the last 18 months. But that’s perhaps something we can pick up later if people are interested.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 23:15
Okay, thanks. Could I pick up with you, Ruth, on that, because a lot of what Courtney’s described with a trusted cast of characters or a reliable, you know, in the we knew who was going to turn up at the daily briefing was something that we saw in Scotland, compared to the rest of the UK. Do you think that the, the reaction was the same as the one that Courtney has just described in that, you know, it was very well received by the population in New Zealand? What about Scotland?

Dr Ruth Lightbody 23:49
And I think that’s a really good point to make. I think there are similarities in that there was this clear daily briefings, we’d expect Nicola Sturgeon and we’ve expected Jason Leitch to appear on our TVs and set out what had been happening and at the beginning of that pandemic, that was really important in that consistency of message, the idea that we all have a responsibility, there’s a social contract between the public to each other, in order to abide by these restrictions. And that sort of was slightly different from what was coming out of Westminster in the UK, which they took a more sort of paternal and look at it, we’re not necessarily all the time, but there was times where certain groups were blamed for an increase in numbers. I don’t think there could ever be the same, the same response from the public because we did have high high rates of COVID. And we had high death rates as well. And the public perceived that we had responded quite late to lockdown we lockeddown quite late. And then there was also these cases of maybe our scientific experts and some of our MPs not sticking to the restrictions themselves. So where you talk about trust, a lot of that trust got lost along way where people felt that they were maybe abiding by the rules and the experts or the elites maybe weren’t. And therefore they were feeling let down. What Scotland did do well, in some respects is that they did try and hear from local people as well. So it wasn’t just a one way process of communicating at the public. You wanted to hear back from you as well. So they’ve had a citizen’s panel on COVID, beginning of the year, there was consultation to the government website. And there was a public conversation Coronavirus, about the the decision making framework, all of these things, we have to think about how far reaching that was, who was actually getting involved with that, was that everyday people that were really struggling at the forefront of the pandemic, was it really those people that we were hearing from so there was a lot of really good work coming out of Scotland. But I would also say maybe sometimes the media wasn’t helping with actually, making sure that the restrictions that were made in Scotland, were not necessarily restrictions that were happening in England, or Wales, Northern Ireland, and it was important to be very, very clear about what restrictions applied where. And I think that’s where the responsibility the media, sometimes, let the tone down there.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 26:11
So that’s interesting. But we’ll come back to the media and also social media and kind of the the roles, positive or negative that that can have. But, John, can I can I ask you about the situation in Ghana? Because I’ll be honest in in the UK, that’s We’ve not heard much about Ghana and the response to COVID. But how has it worked out there? How has the the general population, find the communication?

Professor John Gyapong 26:41
Thank you very much. And good morning, or good evening to colleagues, wherever they may be. I guess that this situation was pretty much similar to what has been reported on from New Zealand and lately from Scotland. We had a very effective communication strategy from the presidency. Actually, the President took the lead in communicating what had to be done. And it was very much received. And it was actually questioned fellow Ghanians, because whenever the President came on television, he said, fellow Ghanians. So everybody said fellow Ghanians, I mean, he became a very real good rallying point, the president initially had a weekly update, where he basically laid down the main strategy that the entire country needed to follow. And then we had the director general of health services, and the Minister of Education during the week, also having regular briefings. And then also we had a website that was dedicated to the numbers of COVID. So how many people have contracted COVID in the last 24 hours, who has died, how many are recovered, so there was very effective communication and information sharing, which I believe was very much appreciated by the entire country, but probably also very similar to what happened in Scotland along the line, people began a little became a little uncomfortable with the way some of the leaders were not showing example. So we can speak about that later on. But generally, the communication was seen to be very, very effective. Many of the quotes of the President has been touted all over the place. I mean, he is very well known to have said, we know how to revive the economy, but we do not know how to bring back people to life. And it basically struck a chord with people that, hey, this is something serious. And we need to listen to the President. So I think that went quite well, initially.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 29:23
Thank you, John. And Kye, I’m interested, you’ve you’ve had the benefit of hearing what happened there in New Zealand, Scotland and Ghana. Anything different particularly I’m thinking about that happened in Malaysia. And I wonder if you’ve any view about you know, the communication generally in countries has not been particularly nuanced. So I mean, the the population is very diverse there, there are people even in most societies who are at the extreme if you like who did not necessarily feel that they were able to comply with a lot of the government requests and so on, and that they suffered particularly badly? And how did that play out in Malaysia?

Dr Kye Mohd Hanafiah 30:17
Thanks. Thanks for having me. And thanks for that question. And I think, if I tie this back to answer your first question as well, I think what we’ve heard so far as really exemplary government communications. And while there was some of that in the beginning of the pandemic in Malaysia, I’m going to say that, actually, the stars in terms of highlighting what has gone well in communication in Malaysia, is really about the people coming together. And using social media as a platform. About 86% of the Malaysian population are active on social media. And I think that’s where we were able to actually to galvanise some support in the beginning of the first pandemic, as well. There was a tagline that was very popular, that came actually from a group of volunteers who realised you know, how much that the pandemic and the restrictions were affecting the most vulnerable communities. But also, more specifically, the front liners, you know, the health care workers, the essential workers. So the tagline was, kita Jaga kita, which means we take care of each other, or it could also be seen as we take care of ourselves. And at that time, it was already signalling a little bit of this, like, we don’t know how much you can trust the government to take care of us, or we’re going to take care of each other. And, you know, that actually became a very important solidarity battle cry for civil society. But what I noticed now, in the second wave, or this subsequent wave, where the situation has actually gotten even more dire, the narrative in the communication in civil society is now about supporting people who’ve lost their incomes, who’ve lost their livelihoods, because of this prolonged restriction. I think we’ve been, I mean, Malaysia has been in some form of lockdown since March, or maybe earlier. So there’s another campaign called the white flag campaign. And it’s both a physical and digital white flag where people can raise the white flag to signal that they need help. And people around them who are aware of that can send essentials and give the support that they need. So I feel like that’s one thing that we’ve done well, in trying to respond to the changing needs of the pandemic, in terms of the community. But the other thing I think, that is really interesting is how, because everybody’s quite active on social media, with the vaccination hesitancy that we had in the beginning, they actually, whenever the vaccination centres popped up, they also had like Instagram frames for people to take pictures, and they asked people to please post up on social media that you’ve gotten vaccinated. And so that’s kind of shifted the question from the public from, is the vaccine safe to when can I get it? But also, because your COVID gotten a lot worse in Malaysia. But I think that’s where we’ve done the communication in a very communal way and using social media.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 33:34
Okay, that’s interesting. And actually, I want to pick up on that point, but almost by asking Courtney and Ruth to think about this, from a New Zealand, Scotland perspective, and it’s Kye, you, you were talking there almost about the government trusting citizens to do things as well as citizens trusting the government, you know, so some governments, I think, in dealing with COVID, have felt unable to trust citizens and need to just dictate to citizens what they have to do and be in control of everything. Whereas some governments have said, Do you know what, you citizens can do things very well, and we’ll give you the tools if you like, and the advice and then we would like you to react and be creative around that. But I’m just thinking with that as a background. I was struck this morning, Courtney, on one of our morning radio programmes, there was an interview from and my apologies I forget his name, but he was the leader of the opposition in New Zealand. And he was being asked about Jacinda Ardern his political opposite, if you like, how she had been dealing with it. And the interviewer at some point said you seem very reluctant to criticise. Well, if I then look at you Ruth and say, well in Scotland they wouldn’t be the the political opponents of our first minister would not be reluctant to criticise. And in fact, I don’t know how you can look at the impact of this. But it seems to me that in New Zealand, there’s been a very enabling political environment. Whereas perhaps in the UK, and I don’t know about Ghana and Malaysia, it’s not a particularly enabling environment because people can’t set politics aside. So have to feel they have to criticise and mean, Ruth, am I being unfair about the environment in Scotland? It’s just, that’s how it seemed to me.

Dr Ruth Lightbody 35:44
You’re absolutely right. And I think especially in the UK approach to how they were talking to the public, as I said, it was a sort of a paternal approach. But it was also there was a blame, it should be said to some groups. And there was also a sort of speaking down to the public as well. And I think there is a relative amount the government has to trust in the people, but you also have to support the people to trust in what they’re being asked to do. And I think we’ve seen co-produced solutions. And here I would have used the example of maybe New Zealand and Taiwan where they’ve, they’ve asked the public to get involved, and probably much more likely to abide by restrictions that they themselves have had some sort of input into, that they trust it they understand the process. And even if they don’t agree with it, it see why this decision has been made. And I think that’s where we have to be really careful in the UK is that we’re sort of, we’re acting in some way, like public or children, and it can’t be trusted with the real scientific evidence and where the evidence is actually changing quite frequently, you have to trust that the public can keep up with that and can understand it. But sometimes for the UK Government, it wasn’t very helpful the way they were explaining what was happening. I think we all had a bit of a laugh at some of the graphs. And the images that we were showing that were really unhelpful. And even as academics were struggling to kind of work through them. So I think in the other examples that we use, in which I think we mentioned in the slides about Canada’s Let’s Talk Science, in schools, and in Finland, they’ve also gone to great efforts to tackle fake news, misinformation. These are the things that we’re not tackling properly in the UK. About how conspiracy theories get get hold of the public, and how in they spread on social media as well. And I think we have to be really careful, but how we’re supporting citizens to be critical, and to be in actively involved in better understanding science.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 37:34
Yeah, thank you. And actually, I’ll just remind everybody, if you have any questions, please put them in the q&a box. But there’s there’s one question there, which we might, it naturally follows on from this. And it’s from it’s an anonymous question, but the question is, this is to what extent do the panel feel that government should monitor? And if necessarily control, media communications about COVID-19? So I mean, that that’s kind of a big question. So because many of us might immediately feel uncomfortable about government controlling the media. It can’t control social media. But I guess it has influence around central media. I mean Kye, can I ask you about that? Because you’ve talked about the preponderance of social media in Malaysia. But should government’s control I put that kind of in inverted commas, the communication on something that’s so crucial, such as a pandemic?

Dr Kye Mohd Hanafiah 38:43
Thanks for that very tricky question. I think there’s like different kinds of misinformation. But there’s also different actors and proponents of misinformation. And I think in looking at what to do about it, we have to also look at the intent. I think, if there was like solid evidence that there are groups putting out misinformation with the purpose to misinform for whatever devious reasons, then I think it would be it would be good if we actually did have some legal recourse to deal with that. But the problem is, a lot of the misinformation is so amorphous, a lot of it is also mixed with misunderstanding, or just repeating things that they’ve heard. And in that case, I don’t think a legal action or control is going to solve the problem. And I think one of the things that I realised, just thinking back in what’s come through my WhatsApp, the past two years about COVID, is just how much it’s exposed. That we have a very sub optimal understanding of basic health and science among educated adults, not even you know, people who, like children or people I don’t expect to know these things. But I’ll give you an example. There was a circular debate about whether ivermectin can replace vaccines. And you know, ivermectin is a de worming medicine and a vaccine is not a medicine. And I would have thought two years ago, most people would would know this at some point. But it was, it was surprising that a lot of people actually don’t. And so I think when when there are some basic lack of science literacy or health literacy available, we can’t blame people if they become easily swayed by misinformation. And so that’s what I think needs to be more actively addressed.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 40:38
And, of course, I’d really support that. I mean, science literacy, partly because almost every aspect of our life, you know, from the minute we get up in the morning to go to bed at night, our life depends on science, engineering, and technology and people should, you know, I have the benefit of knowing about that, and also questioning it, I guess. I mean, John, I’m thinking from the point of view in Ghana, how did the media work with government or not in terms of communicating the messages that the government wish to get across to the population?

Professor John Gyapong 41:19
Well, thank you very much, again, I mean, Ghana has a very plural media, very, very vibrant. And the initial engagement was, in my opinion, very positive. So, briefing of the, the main media houses was done very regularly. And it was carried by various networks. So there was very, very positive engagement. However, along the line, though, a few challenges here and there. And I think, again, it boils down, in my opinion, to scientific communication. There was the suggestion by certain sections of the media that government was holding back on the real numbers, and, therefore, people became a little sceptical along the lines, as to whether the numbers that were being churned out were reliable. And we had some media people becoming epidemiologists overnight and churning out dubbing data, which in my opinion, was very questionable. So it’s the whole issue of building of trust. But along the line also came the challenge of social media. And, unfortunately, most of the things that I saw on social media were, were rather negative. The whole conspiracy theory of some pathogen escaping from the laboratory, and it was an attempt by the Western countries to wipe out populations in Africa. It made people begin to question the data that was coming out, and the regular briefings that were coming from the hierarchy. So the question was, should we believe what is being channelled on social media or not? And I mean, honestly, Ghana has become so vibrant, as far as the plural media is concerned, such as sometimes you see certain things on social media. And you would, I mean, you feel I just believe in that that is the truth. So deciphering the difference between the real information and the truth became a problem along the line. And as you said, we need an educated media to be able to be able to give the population the right kind of information. We have the challenge there definitely, inasmuch as they were, they were willing to support and provide the necessary impetus for things to be done. There was a challenge along those lines. And then the politics also came in and I’m sure you know, globally, there are some media houses which are politically aligned. And when that comes in a big scale it makes the whole environment very murky. And for us in Ghana, the year 2020 was an election year. So you have a president who has banned all social gatherings. And nobody was allowed to have political rallies. If you know the way campaigning is done in our part of the world. Nobody could do political rallies anyway. But the other president was really running for election on television every week, reaching out to the people. So all those things made the environment very, very, maybe poisoned to some extent. But I think by and large, we came through, and I guess Ghana was a winner.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 45:46
Okay, that’s interesting. And actually, there were some parallels there. I think the Scotland because we had elections as well, whilst our First Minister was appearing every day on the media, and our campaigning is done slightly differently. But an interesting point, can I ask, and, Courtney, I’m going to come to you on this. Derek Young has asked a question. And what he’s saying is that, with the science community, help political leaders to engage, I suppose better with with the public, to, I suppose give political leaders the confidence that the public should have a role and that leaders don’t have all the answers to complex questions. So maybe, and Derek apologies if I’m getting this wrong, but in a way, science communication, you have to think carefully about it, because you’re often communicating quite complex and specialist information, but trying to make that available and invaluable for a non specialist audience. So do science communicators have a role there? What do you think about that, Courtney?

Courtney Addison 46:59
Oh, absolutely. And I think this was one of the great challenges of the pandemic and continues to be is the fact that, you know, we there’s just so much that we didn’t know and decisions were of necessity being made based on information that was imperfect, that was partial, that was changing week, by week, or day, by day, even. One of the things that our leaders in New Zealand did was they were particularly transparent about what they didn’t know. And they would, for example, part of those daily briefings that I mentioned earlier involved a back and forth between our press gallery, journalists and the Prime Minister and director general of health, when they didn’t have answers to something, they would say it very plainly. And then they would come back with the best information that they had once it was available to them. And they were very open about the fact that this was, there were a lot of unknowns that they just they were making the best decisions they could with the information available to them. And the work that we’ve done, subsequently, interviewing people shows that people were actually really sympathetic to that. And it actually becomes a project and explaining to people and building understanding of the way that science works fundamentally, right, because science is a motor of uncertainty at the end of the day, you know, it feeds on this. And the more that people understand that I think the more nuanced conversations we can have about the way that knowledge is built and evolved and revised. And, you know, sometimes we backtrack, and sometimes we move forward. And you know, there was an opportunity here to actually develop a much richer conversation around science. And so the science communicators absolutely they, they played a big role in that as well.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 48:41
Thanks, Courtney. And we’re sort of coming to nearing the end of our one hour event time. And I’m just looking at the questions that are in front of me, and they’re quite interesting, because there’s a common theme. I mean, there’s a lot about trust. And actually, Kye, you know, have a look at the questions. There’s one particularly about people in Malaysia thinking that the government aren’t telling the truth about COVID figures. Well, John, you also mentioned that and, you know, people start bickering about the figures when they’re maybe trying to make a point. But, and I don’t know whether you want to type an answer to that one. If you’ve got some particular comments that you’d like to make, but the other two questions that I’m looking at at the moment, and one from Fraser, and another anonymous one, but they’re both asking similar questions, which is, you know, how can governments react and communicate effectively scientific information to the public when there’s uncertainty about the science, and, you know, science, in some ways been quite magnificent during the pandemic from and it’s not been from a standing start because we had so much knowledge about viruses and vaccines and so on, John, it’s your area around infectious epidemiology. But we had a lot of information, but really, very quickly, you know, started sequencing the viruses looking at spreads, looking at infectivity, and what, you know, why is the delta variant more infectious? Now, we think we know why what mutations have been, have been happening and how we might deal with those. And how do we communicate uncertainty? Because someone I think it was you Fraser said, Churchill said, experts should be on tap, but not on top. He also said that what he wanted most was a one handed Chief Scientific Adviser. And the reason was, because if you ask a scientist, something they always say, well, on the one hand, and they won’t give you a straight answer, because of uncertainty, which most scientists are completely happy with. When I love uncertainty, it’s exciting, and a challenge. Whereas I think the public don’t, they don’t need uncertainty, just tell me what to do. So can I ask, I mean, who would like to address that?

Professor John Gyapong 51:18
So I can have a go at this, I think we need to be humble enough to say, we do not know when we do not know, this was and is still an evolving pandemic, which we all trying to understand. We’ve had various variants, as you alluded to, which have had different levels of virulence. And the truth of the matter is that we are still learning by the day. And politicians don’t want to hear that, if I’m advising the politician. And I tell him that I do not know, he feels uncomfortable, because they think that they must know it all, and go and be in front of the cameras and tell the country that they know it all. But unfortunately, we do not. And I think we should be humble enough to know that is all I would want to say there.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 52:20
Yeah. And that I agree with you. And you know, having been in those advisory roles. I know that politicians get I remember one politician saying to me, for goodness sake, can you just tell me one thing that’s absolutely true, and certain about science. And you know, at the time, I said nothing travels faster than the speed of light. And unfortunately, the next day, I woke up to hear that scientists from the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy had just determined that there was a particle travelling faster than the speed of light. Turns out to be not true. But it just reminded me that, you know, there’s no such thing as absolute truth in a way in science, but okay, I’m going to pull this together, we could have discussed for very much longer. And just Courtney, Ruth, Kye, John, one in one sentence, do you think we’ve learned from the pandemic and communication will be better in the future and issues like this, Courtney, what do you think?

Courtney Addison 53:27
I don’t know. I think I think this highlights the fact that all communication, you know, the best communication in the world isn’t going to cover up decision making that people won’t stand behind. That’s my sort of take home message from the last 18 months.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 53:47
Okay, Slightly depressing. But, Kye, what do you think?

Dr Kye Mohd Hanafiah 53:52
I think in terms,yeah it’s hard to predict what would happen if we ever go come across another COVID-19. But my question right now is, are we ever going to get out of COVID-19? I mean, that’s my first depressing question. But what I noticed, being in Australia right now is that communication has the best chance of being effective if it’s also tied to concrete action that people can take. So it’s not just about risk communication, but what can you do about this risk? So I think the best example here is like we have snap lockdowns that become more snappier over time here. But it’s always, like, whenever there’s like a list of exposure sites, immediately, people know that there are places where they can go to get tested. And the testing is widely available and free. And that’s when that communication of the exposure potential exposure and the risk and where we’re at in the pandemic, can then be empowering for people to go, Yeah, okay. I’m going to go get tested because I’ve visited so and so’s site. And I think that’s when it can actually be effective. And if that’s something that we learned from this, is that it I mean, we talked about uncertainty just now sorry, this is a long sentence. But I think a lot of things that people predicted were actually did happen, like if you do nothing or if you do little, if you don’t act early enough, this is what you get. It’s a bit sobering. But if anything that that science was correct on that one. So in the future, hopefully we do take this more seriously and accurately.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 55:22
Thank you , Ruth your thoughts. Will it be better?

Dr Ruth Lightbody 55:27
I don’t think it matters how clear communication public health messaging is, if we don’t have a more equitable society, people can’t abide by the restrictions. I think moving forward, especially in Scotland, that’s what we need to think about, a human rights approach to support social progress, and making sure that everybody feels that they have a stake in their own future. And then they will be able to abide by restrictions much more easily or keep up with public communication.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 55:53
Thanks for that. And, John, final word for you.

Professor John Gyapong 55:58
Yeah, I think we are still on a learning curve. And for me, one clear issue is that those of us in developing countries should learn to invest a lot more in R&D, in whatever area it is, I mean, look at the problems with access to vaccines, we didn’t even get opportunity to discuss that at all. I mean, in Africa, less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated. So it tells you that there is a problem. So we have a very long learning curve. And we need to put our money where our mouths are, thank you.

Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE 56:36
Thank you so much, John. Can I thank you, Courtney, Ruth, John, and Kye very much for your contributions. And also, Alexa and Talat for giving us the introduction to this event, of course, our colleagues at the RSE who’ve organised the event and put this together. And just in, in leaving, I think if I could summarise some of our discussion, we talked about trust being very important, because you can communicate all you like but if people don’t trust you, then it’s almost just going into a void. That’s a very important issue that Ruth brought up about equity. There are some, some fundamental platforms in society, we need to be resilient as a society and a more equitable society is surely one of those and empowering the population to do things, I think empowerment of a population to feel that they can do things and that they are working together is crucial. And it came out as well, I wasn’t expecting this necessarily, but, you know, perhaps our politicians should rethink their purpose and role there. They’re there to represent us, the citizens of any country. They’re not there to control us. They’re there to represent us. And so in fact, almost giving up some of that control and sharing it with the citizens more effectively, might be more constructive. In the end. We’ve overrun a little I do apologise for that. But I would particularly like to thank those of you who’ve joined us this morning. I hope you’ve benefited and been excited by the discussion as I have and have a look at the RSE website and join in some more of events. They’re for you. So thank you very much and enjoy the rest of your day or the small amount that remains of your evening depending on where you are in the world. Okay, goodbye.

Dr Ruth Lightbody 58:48

Professor John Gyapong 58:48
Thanks for having us.

Courtney Addison 58:49

Dr Kye Mohd Hanafiah 58:50

Lectures and events
Publication Date
Dame Lesley Anne Glover FRSE
Talat Yaqoob FRSE
Alexa Waud
Dr Ruth Lightbody
Courtney Addison
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