Reflections on the COVID-19 pandemic

Part 1: COVID-19 and me as a scientist (and scientists in general)

Some days ago a friend and colleague told me that in situations like the COVID-19 emergency she would like to be more ‘directly useful’ as a scientist. Like the doctors who are saving lives every day. Or the virology labs that are trying to find a vaccine or an effective treatment as fast as possible.

Just a couple of weeks before, my dad posed me a very interesting question: why are scientists not speaking more loudly as a single ‘scientific community’, and therefore giving a more united view – one based on scientific data – that could fight the fake news and encourage fast and correct actions by people and politicians? 

This question was very important to me – it got me thinking that sometimes in our scientific circle we feel that there is a lot of scientific information shared everywhere, but this may not be what society sees from the outside. In fact, the information is there but it is as vast as fragmented and difficult to navigate. Furthermore, for many people the main sources of information are still television and newspaper articles. And only after the explosion of the emergency people might also seek information from places like the Italian Institute of Health (ISS) or the WHO.

My friend’s thought and my dad’s question were bouncing around in my mind: we could indeed be more useful as scientists – even if we are not virologists – in these kind of situations:

  1. First of all, I feel that each one of us biologists (I include firstly myself!) could have started searching for papers and good sources of information much earlier, not only when it became an international emergency. We could all have paid more attention to COVID-19 from the moment that the press started to talk about a virus spreading so fast in an overpopulated country like China. I feel it should be among our duties to do so in these situations, not only the hobby of some of us who want to do outreach. In fact, I strongly believe in the support we can give people in our surroundings to better understand a phenomenon. People trust us. Even if not expert in the field, we can help to collect good references and thus instead of just complaining about general press behaviour (e.g. of exaggerating or diminishing the relevance of a study) make our contribution to providing a counterpart to it.
  2. Second of all, wouldn’t the above be more effective if the scientific community was more united in sharing information in such emergencies? An article like the one that circulated among scientists and was signed by scientists to call for actions to fight climate change (https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/1/8/5610806) is in my opinion a good example to – on the one hand – make a stronger point as a scientific community and thus be heard by politicians, and – on the other hand – help each individual scientist to be up-to-date and do what I mentioned in point 1.

Obviously, I do not have a clear idea how to put this into practice at the moment. Something that crossed my mind was, for example, a mailing list including all research centres to which organisations like the ISS or WHO could send relevant scientific data and important updates to make the whole scientific community aware at the same time – but I am just throwing a thought out there*, wishing that we – as scientists and as citizens – will be more prepared for the next big challenge like the COVID-19 pandemic we are experiencing right now.

COVID-19 reminded me to keep more up-to-date about science-related facts from around the world in order to help the people around us understand them better too. I think that we can be ‘useful’ scientists in our daily lives by being the bridge between the scientific literature and society.

*I would be happy to hear the comments of both other young scientists and those more advanced in their careers on how we can best act as a united scientific community.

 

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