Professor Catherine Bennett remembers being in a supermarket the first time she was recognized.
“A woman called, acknowledging that she had seen me on television. She shouted: “I love you!”
Bennett, the inaugural chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, is one of many Australian experts who have been put in the spotlight by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, the public’s appetite for information and analysis has made researchers household names.
Throughout the pandemic, Bennett communicated the latest developments and research on Covid-19 to the public, through media interviews and written reviews. Now she hardly goes anywhere without being recognized.
“Although it’s happened gradually, it’s still a very strange thing,” she says.
“As a researcher at a university… you really want to make people’s lives healthier and safer. But you rarely get the chance to hear from the audience like we are now. It’s a mark of how strange these times are, but at the same time it’s the little that strengthens your willingness to contribute.
Professor Mary-Louise McLaws has also been approached in public.
“People will come and say, ‘thank you so much for talking to us in an apolitical way’, or ‘you reassure me what’s going on,’ she said.
By day McLaws is Professor of Epidemiology at the University of NSW and a member of the Covid Infection Prevention and Control Working Group of the NSW Clinical Excellence Commission. At night, she is an independent advisor to the World Health Organization’s health emergency program on infection and control of Covid.
“For two decades, no one knew of the work I did at WHO or with WHO,” says McLaws, who worked both directly for the organization and as an external advisor. “I often did this during my vacation.
“This is the problem of epidemiologists … [normally] it’s all behind the scenes.
Because of the jet lag, his WHO meetings often last until the early hours of the morning.
“You are constantly jet-lagged and you have no social life,” says McLaws. But she’s happy to sacrifice sleep to be informed by cutting-edge and ever-changing scientific research.
“We have update meetings on the variants of concern and the impact that has on infection control, and then we’re asked to determine whether or not we need to change the guidelines and approaches,” she says.
The responsibility to inform political decisions and to communicate to the public is a responsibility that she does not take lightly.
“When I am asked for opinions in Australia, I have been criticized for ignoring economics or mental health,” she says. “But I try to remind listeners or readers that this is not part of the responsibility of an epidemiologist – it is leadership. So you are focusing on one thing, and that is your understanding of managing epidemics and pandemics. “
Professor Sharon Lewin, an infectious disease physician and first director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, agrees.
Lewin co-chairs Australia’s national advisory committee on health and Covid research, which advises the chief medical officer. During Victoria’s second wave last year, she was also part of an advisory group to the Victoria Treasurer.
“I think my role as a scientist is to make sure that government and leaders have access to the best scientific synthesis around and that their policy is influenced by science,” she says.
“You can’t beat a public health crisis with science alone. You need political leadership and you need civil society.
In England, chief medical officer Chris Whitty and his deputy Jonathan Van-Tam have both been abused on the streets, but Lewin says she hasn’t seen anything like it in Australia.
“I was a little horrified to see what happened to scientists in other countries. I haven’t experienced this myself, ”says Lewin, an HIV expert who is friends with Dr Anthony Fauci. “There was real respect for expertise in this country.
Hassan Vally, associate professor at the University of La Trobe, initially wanted to stay out of the media spotlight.
“When this all started, I made the decision not to be involved in the public commentary, which is quite ironic,” he says.
“There was a lot of noise, a lot of non-expert commentary and a lot of expert commentary in other fields,” he recalls. “I thought it was a complete mess at first and didn’t want to contribute to that.”
During the Second Victorian Wave, Vally took unpaid leave of absence from her academic position to lend her expertise to the Victoria Elderly Care Center for two months.
As the pandemic progressed, Vally felt that important public health messages were not being communicated adequately. “Eventually I was contacted by the media and decided to respond,” he says. “Before I knew it, it was a bit of an avalanche.”
Sharing his scientific opinions has at times made him a target for antivaxxers. “There are a lot of agendas and pretty powerful people spreading misinformation,” says Vally.
“My motivation as a scientist and then as a science communicator is to do good,” he says. “[It’s] not easy sometimes.
McLaws, whose experience includes examining the response to the SARS outbreak, says she occasionally receives emails from “some very stressed people.”
“I don’t take it personally,” she said. “I think the epidemiologists of [an] epidemic are used to uncertainty and the general public are not.
“We need to build resilience, especially in our 20s and up, because it won’t be the only uncertain time in their lives.”
Bennett says the negative responses formed the “absolute minority” of his interactions with the public, but it took some getting used to. “You could write something about masks or vaccines and you could have an anti-masker attack you and a pro-masker attack you for the same comment,” she says.
She has been overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of the public throughout the pandemic.
After television interviews, people contacted her about old mugs on her shelf and books she was reading. Without telling her, Bennett’s partner had changed the book prominently on the shelf behind her, starting with La Peste by Albert Camus.
“Where people have given me a little thank you, I often put it on the shelf behind me. This is my way of saying: thank you, I received it.
“Whether you are a scientist, someone who is looking for contacts, someone who has been exposed to a case, someone who is trying to keep their business alive, everyone is so touched by this,” Bennett says. .
“It was just an amazing time to be pushed into the middle in a public role… one way or another that connects you through it all.”