Science and World Leaders: how is information conveyed to the public?

Updated: Jul 25

Authored by Jennifer Anstey


PM Boris Johnson addressing the UK on the 10th of May

Coronavirus has now dominated the news since the first cases were revealed in China in December, resulting in a variety of trajectories of government response. Each country was provided with sufficient time to prepare for the unpreventable outcome of wide-spread infection. Given this information, why have the number of deaths and cases seen varied to such a large extent? To answer this question, we must first consider the initial response to the news of the virus by leaders; were the facts and science effectively communicated in a way to trigger an incentive in people to change their entire way of life?


Following the first death from COVID-19 in the UK on the 5th of March 2020[1], Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised the general public to wash their hands as the “best single piece of advice we [the government] can give”[2]. At the same time, Italy was just days away from becoming the first country in Europe to enter nationwide lockdown after becoming the epicentre of the disease, with some criticising the response as being too late with 9172 already confirmed cases. Some have claimed the country did not take the outcome in China seriously.[3] Italy’s scientific advisor went on to warn the UK that the government had been too slow to respond.[4] Countries, such as Vietnam, were expected to suffer greatly from the pandemic yet managed to avoid all deaths by imposing a strict lockdown involving fines to those misusing social media to spread false information.[5] In the US President Trump initially labeled criticism of his handling of COVID-19 as a “hoax” and additionally claimed “the democrat policy of open borders” threatened health of Americans[6] before later stating that he had always viewed the pandemic as “very serious”[7] when around 14200 people had tested positive for the virus.[8] New Zealand, a country that has been widely praised for their response, imposed an immediate lockdown after Prime Minister Jacinda Arden announced that models had shown than deaths could be in the tens of thousands if they did not respond quickly. Following the news that the health minister had broken these rules, she quickly condemned his actions and so reinforced the trust of her nation.[9] Brazil has seen a severe lack of leadership with President Jair Bolsonaro holding rallies against lockdown leading to ‘between 45% and 60%’ of citizens refusing to comply with social distancing measures.[10]


How important is the response and language of the government of a country to the outcome of disease? Using the above examples, it seems as though quicker and more stringent measures have resulted in lower death and infection rates, as of the 2nd of June reported coronavirus deaths stand at: 106925 (US), 39045 (UK), 33475 (Italy), 30046 (Brazil)[11], 0 (Vietnam)[12], 22 (New Zealand). Communication of the complex science involved to the general public is vital and should be done in an explicit manner in order promote compliance with measures put in place to protect. PM Johnson and the conservative government chose to use the metaphor of war, perhaps to mirror the response of the conservative government during world war 2. The constant referrals this “battle” against our “invisible enemy”[13] leads to the scientific message getting somewhat lost; a virus does not choose a host, a virus is a non-living pathogen and there is no way to fight the virus without a vaccine or treatment. The metaphor gives the illusion that there is still an element of control involved, perhaps in an attempt to maintain control over lockdown. The UK government also chose to refer to NHS employees as “heroes”, something that has been criticised by some NHS workers who feel they are being painted as people who “signed up to die”[14] with a lack of adequate PPE being the factor involved in putting staff at risk- something entirely in the hands of the government[15]. Prime Minister Johnson also did not comply with Sage advice by shaking hands with hospital patients[16] and contracted the virus just weeks later[17]. In daily briefings, the presented statistics were not always clear and eventually comparative death rates were not presented, many have accused this action taking place to hide the UK as being the worst hit country.[18] A clearer understanding of how a virus enters the body and subsequently is able to reproduce and cause symptoms would have been beneficial to the general public to encourage compliance with lockdown rules even on days such as VE day.


The Prime Minister of New Zealand in her first Coronavirus update announced the lockdown on the 19th of March and addressed the impact that it was likely to have on the economy but highlighting that she was to put the health of the nation first as this too would impact the economy. However, she chose to use the metaphor of a “Storm”.[19] This differs from the war metaphor in the sense that it indicates that anyone can be impacted, inflicting a sense of fear that causes people to want to ‘shelter’ from it rather than trust the soldiers of a war to take the blow. This still does not involve the use of scientific language but does send out a clear warning of the danger that may be to come. However, this still does not give voice to the scientists in terms of how the virus impacts the body- this would likely develop a greater understanding of why people are asked to give up their entire way of life.


Perhaps this scientific communication is avoided due to worries of engagement with the topic when using scientific language or it may be for political gain; if people believe you are helping them win a war, for example, you will be deemed a hero of sorts and gain popularity in politics that will eventually increase approval of any further actions taken by the government in the future and also the number of voters.


Metaphors have been used throughout recent history to describe science but can ultimately be damaging, with one scientist claiming that “they are some sort of modern propaganda” [20] perhaps indicating that they have become a political tool rather than a method to inform. Some believe that the use of such develops the ideology that it is unavoidable that we lose people as a sacrifice almost for the rest of us to live, which carries little credibility as the virus does not work the same as a bullet and will continue to spread. Ultimately, this allows the temporary measures put in place to win this “war” to be praised even upon their removal as cases decrease, this includes extra funding to services that have been struggling to survive for more than a decade.[21] This also led to the UK prime minister, upon recovery, to become a Solider who survived a battle, unconsciously leading to a greater amount of respect for him. The lack of clear science in politics is intentional as it allows the government to control what is shared with the public, thus allows for statistics that oppose their motive or agenda to be hidden or more difficult to interpret and access. The reality of greater scientific representation would allow for an impartial approach, despite some modern views on scientists, that would inform the public and impart pressure on the government to respond, not out of their own interests, but the interests of public health.[22] This is where the difference in number of deaths and cases between countries is derived from.


In the future, it seems as though science may need to take a bigger part in government, with scientists not just acting as advisors but also having a bigger say in when to implement things such as lockdown. All speeches made should be fact checked rigorously and any implicit language surrounding science that has implications as being damaging to public safety should be removed. We will learn from this pandemic what is being done right and what is being done wrong when it comes to listening to science and warnings from other countries.


References


[1] M. Weaver, Five already dead by time UK reported first coronavirus death, The Guardian, 2020, 30th April, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/30/five-already-dead-by-time-uk-reported-first-coronavirus-death#maincontent, accessed June 2020

[2] BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-51682581/boris-johnson-advises-people-to-wash-hands-to-avoid-coronavirus, accessed June 2020

[3] D. Lawler, Timeline: How Italy’s coronavirus crisis became the world’s deadliest, Axios, 2020, 24th March, https://www.axios.com/italy-coronavirus-timeline-lockdown-deaths-cases-2adb0fc7-6ab5-4b7c-9a55-bc6897494dc6.html, accessed June 2020

[4] S. Lockwood, Coronavirus: Uk should have gone into lockdown 10 days ago, Italy’s scientific adviser warns, Sky News, 2020, 27th March, https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-uk-should-have-gone-into-lockdown-10-days-ago-italys-scientific-adviser-warns-11964138, accessed June 2020

[5] S. Bengali, Without a single COVID-19 death, Vietnam starts easing its coronavirus lockdown, Los Angeles Times, 2020, 23rd April, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-04-23/vietnam-eases-coronavirus-lockdown, accessed June 2020

[6] D. Strauss, O. Laughland, Trump calls coronavirus criticism Democrats’ ‘new hoax’ and links it to immigration, The Guardian, 2020, 29th February, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/feb/28/trump-calls-coronavirus-outbreak-a-hoax-and-links-it-to-immigration-at-rally, accessed June 2020

[7] E. Thomas, B. Gittleson, Trump’s own words contradict claim he’s always viewed coronavirus as ‘very serious’, abc News, 2020, 20th March, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trumps-words-contradict-claim-viewed-coronavirus/story?id=69662788, accessed June 2020

[8] n.a., Coronavirus updates from March 19, 2020, CBS News, 2020, 20th March, https://www.cbsnews.com/live-updates/coronavirus-disease-covid-19-latest-news-2020-03-19/, accessed June 2020

[9] K. Richter, How New Zealand beat the coronavirus, Politico, 2020, 14th May, https://www.politico.eu/article/kiwis-vs-coronavirus-new-zealand-covid19-restrictions-rules/, accessed June 2020

[10] C. Nugent, Brazil Is Starting to Lose the Fight Against Coronavirus, TIME, 2020, 21st May, https://time.com/5840208/brazil-coronavirus/, accessed June 2020

[11] n.a. , COVID-19 deaths worldwide as of June 2nd, 2020, by country, John Elfein, June 2020, statista.com/statistics/1093256/novel-coronavirus-2019ncov-deaths-worldwide-by-country/#statisticContainer, accessed June 2020

[12] worldometer, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/viet-nam/, accessed June 2020

[13] K. Proctor, Boris Johnson’s post-coronavirus speech: what he said, and what it means, The Guardian, 2020, 27th April, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/apr/27/boris-johnsons-post-coronavirus-speech-what-he-said-what-it-means, accessed June 2020

[14] O. Petter, Coronavirus: Don’t call NHS workers ‘heroes’, says new mental health guide, 2020, 30th April, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/coronavirus-nhs-mental-health-workers-heroes-a9492341.html, accessed June 2020

[15] ITV News, https://www.itv.com/news/2020-04-19/nhs-staff-being-asked-to-sacrifice-themselves-over-lack-of-ppe/, accessed June 2020

[16] R. Mason, Boris Johnson boasted of shaking hands on day Sage warned not to, The Guardian, 2020, 5th May, https://www.itv.com/news/2020-04-19/nhs-staff-being-asked-to-sacrifice-themselves-over-lack-of-ppe/, accessed June 2020

[17] R. Mason, P. Walker and H. Delvin, Boris Johnson admitted to hospital with coronavirus, The Guardian, 2020, 5th April, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/apr/05/boris-johnson-admitted-to-hospital-with-coronavirus, accessed June 2020

[18] S. Cushion, M. Kyriakidou, M. Morani and N. Soo, Coronavirus: public confused and suspicious over government’s death toll information, The Conversation, 2020, 19th May, https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-public-confused-and-suspicious-over-governments-death-toll-information-138966, accessed June 2020

[19] Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/398724912, accessed June 2020

[20] M. Wenner, A war against war metaphors, The Scientist, 2007, 31st March, https://www.the-scientist.com/notebook-old/a-war-against-war-metaphors-46604, accessed June 2020

[21] R. Hannan, Why we shouldn’t use war metaphors to talk about healthcare, The RSA, 2020, 1st May, https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2020/05/war-language-healthcare, accessed June 2020

[22] I. L. Boyd, Science, 2019, 366, 281 / 10.1126/science.aaz7996.

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