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How COVID-19 is Revealing the Gaps in Science Communication.

May 4, 2020
By: 
Simarpreet Singh
PhD Candidate in Chemistry
University of Manitoba
Alexander Pritchard
PhD Candidate in Chemistry
University of Manitoba

The world is experiencing disruptions in every aspect of life because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The uncertainty of the future causes anxiety amongst the general public, which can be further amplified by disinformation and misinformation being spread about COVID-19. Some examples of this include recent attacks on 5G cell phone towers and articles questioning whether the Coronavirus is a result of drinking Corona beer. The resulting distress can lead to fear as the information from experts is often not delivered effectively and/or is not laid out in an understandable way for the general public. Tackling this problem can be done by breaking down complex information, from experts to content that is understandable by the general public and providing comprehensive action points with accessible explanations. This ultimately builds trust between the public and science which is key to minimizing the spread of the virus.

One lesson we can learn from this pandemic is the importance of science communication in our society. Open-access journals and pre-prints have made sources of essential information more accessible than ever. However, direct communication from scientists is a more effective way to engage the public with scientific content as it eliminates a step in the chain of information. Consider playing a game of telephone, the fewer stops along the way, the less likely the message is to be misconstrued. In the research community, both scientists and institutions produce significant amounts of information and are seen as one of the most credible sources of scientific information. For scientists to engage with the general public about their research, institutions can play an important role. Aside from funding and promoting science communication, institutions could lift some of the burden of the administrative work that falls on scientists. This would motivate them towards engaging with the general public without reducing their research capabilities.

We have heard about the benefits of following guidelines such as social distancing, washing hands properly, and disinfecting surfaces to “flatten the curve”. However as reports of packed beaches and people going about their days as normal appear, it is clear that in some cases these recommendations are not being taken seriously. It is crucial to distribute information about social distancing and other guidelines, however, it is also essential that the distributed information is actually understood. This is just one of the reasons why science communication is more important than ever.

Conveying the reason behind the message is as important as the message itself, which is possible through effective communication. Key components of effective science communication with the general public are keeping it accessible, accurate, and aiding in understanding. People are unlikely to register and follow applicable information when they cannot answer why, when, where, and how they should use it. The general public might not know that the improper use of PPE can increase the risk of infection. For example, people often use their phones while wearing gloves, however, they may not be aware of the risks of cross-contamination. If the virus is present on their gloves, it will now be on their phone, leading to the potential spread of the virus. Something as simple as the process of wearing gloves needs a clear technique with the reasoning behind it. Otherwise, gloves only provide a false sense of security leading to an increase in risk.

It is essential that health experts provide a clear message in regards to the following guidelines. Providing clear recommendations and explanations builds the public’s trust of the government and science while increasing the likelihood of the guidelines being followed. That being said, it is imperative that the public be made aware of evidence alongside the new guidelines. This will allow the public to have confidence in health experts when new recommendations are made, as well as in their newfound knowledge. We saw this with the Canadian Government’s recommendations on face masks. On March 28th, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer announced that there was no need for healthy people to wear face masks as they will not necessarily reduce the spread of infection. This advice changed on April 6th, non-medical masks were recommended, as it became clear that asymptomatic carriers could spread the virus. This may cause confusion or loss of trust amongst the public despite the guidelines being changed as more information became available. This shows the importance of communication; when there is confusion, a chance to build trust is lost, which means that public cooperation may be reduced.

In a public health emergency, cooperation from the population as a whole is essential. Science communication can be a bridge between the general public and scientists. It increases the likelihood that measures such as social distancing and isolation will be taken seriously. Research institutions and scientists should increase involvement with their local communities, by increasing engagement, more opportunities to build trust will present themselves. It is in everybody's best interest that the message from experts reaches the general public, which is more achievable with effective science communication.