Politicised COVID-19 responses undermine trust in science

Concerns have mounted across Africa, Europe and Asia that scientists advising on the spread of COVID-19 are being compromised by close relationships with their governments as second waves of the outbreak peak around the world – and death tolls keep rising as a result.

The fears largely stem from the politicisation of official responses to the virus, which has been exacerbated by a lack of transparency around how the scientific advice being received by governments is, or is not, shaping the measures adopted.

The result, according to epidemiologists and social scientists, has been declining public trust in the effectiveness or importance of mitigation measures, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, which has contributed to the resurgence of outbreaks in a number of countries as new strains of the virus spread.

Government communication efforts have been further damaged by a lack of responsiveness to the public’s own perceptions of their social, cultural and medical needs during the pandemic.

Trust in scientists declining

Research in the Nordic countries has found that societies have become increasingly polarised on the steps that should be taken to contain the outbreak, as levels of trust in both scientists and government have fallen, albeit from relatively high levels of confidence.

“We have witnessed a system-wide failure of independent science advice,” David Budtz Pedersen, a professor of science communication at Aalborg University in Denmark, told a Science Agora webinar hosted by the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST).

“We have been too reliant on the government’s own advisers who are often filtered through the political system where messages are designed for a political audience rather than a scientific one.”

Addressing a recent webinar on “The role of the global scientific community in disaster response – Lessons learned from COVID-19”, Pedersen ascribed the failure to hubris.

“In Scandinavia, we thought we were so good at science advice that we mainstreamed our advice into government – which makes it part of government and [therefore is] no longer seen as the honest broker, but more aligned with vested interests – which is a tricky position to be in.”

Citing scholarship on the paradox of scientific authority, Pedersen noted: “If you are too close as an advisor to politics, that may compromise your independence, but if you are too far away from policy-making you might not really understand how to provide advice in a timely, responsive manner.”

‘Culture of secrecy’

In South Africa, an independent report on the country’s response to COVID-19 noted that public trust in the government’s prescriptions had been undermined by a “culture of secrecy” around the scientific advice being produced to manage the pandemic, according to Marietjie Botes of the law school at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The report, being prepared at the behest of the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation within the South African presidency, found that there was a lack of transparency in government decision-making, which led to confusion about when and why policy deviated from the advice of the scientific experts.

“This undermined … citizens’ response to mitigating strategies – which was worsened by contradicting messages and directives from different ministries,” said Botes, who contributed to the human rights section of the report.

The point was recently further emphasised by Francois Venter, a professor in the faculty of health sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, who said the South African government’s dissemination of “unscientific” edicts – political decisions in the guise of medical advice – had eroded public faith in its efforts to contain the outbreak just when such trust was needed most: “It becomes much easier to toss away the mask.”

Between April and September, complacency about the threat posed by the virus mounted across South Africa, according to a COVID-19 democracy survey produced by the country’s Human Sciences Research Council and the University of Johannesburg. The proportion of the public who believed the threat posed by the coronavirus had been exaggerated grew from under 33% to about 41%.

Science democratised

The credibility issue for science comes in part as a result of the major contribution that it has made to the public discourse since COVID-19 became a matter of global concern.

“Science has been democratised,” Salim Abdool Karim, South Africa’s highest profile epidemiologist and the leader of the Ministerial Advisory Committee appointed to advise the government on the virus, recently told a webinar entitled Science Forum South Africa 2020, hosted by the Department of Science and Innovation.

He noted that scientific conversation was no longer just taking place in “the ivory towers”. “COVID-19 has made it accessible to everybody … Everybody is calculating science.”

The point was reinforced by Daan du Toit, the deputy director-general of international cooperation and resources at the Department of Science and Innovation, who said that the pandemic had been “a good time for science in the public eye”, with leading scientists gaining significant exposure in the mainstream media.

But such a high profile can come at a price.

Comparing the credibility garnered by the recent co-winners of the annual John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science – Karim and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States – Nico Cloete of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa noted: “Fauci completely compromised himself by hanging around the White House and then getting kicked out.

“Karim never appeared with a politician, although we know he and [South African Health Minister] Zweli Mkhize were at medical school together. But he kept a professional distance.”

The credibility challenge was acknowledged by Karim himself in an inaugural address he delivered at the Science Forum South Africa 2020. He spoke about coming under fire for advising former president Thabo Mbeki at the height of the South African government’s Aids denialism in the 2000s.

Governments should embrace transparency

At the same time, just as political leaders may seek to bolster their positions by co-opting scientists, they can also weaken them by adopting this approach. In Japan, the new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has come under fire for rejecting six of the candidates for membership of the Science Council of Japan because they had spoken up in opposition to the government in the past.

Similarly, the South African government has been lambasted by academics and researchers for undermining scientists critical of its public health approach to COVID-19 and culling them from its Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC).

Venter, Glenda Gray, the CEO of the South African Medical Research Council, and Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, all of whom had publicly criticised some of the rules promulgated by the government in response to the pandemic, were summarily dismissed from the body in September.

Reflecting on the decision, Venter said: “Government really needs to embrace transparency, and explain … disbanding an expert panel that didn’t rubber stamp decisions made behind closed doors.”

In Britain also, questions were asked about transparency in relation to the body advising the government – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Contrary to existing official guidance, the membership and findings of the group were initially kept secret at the instruction of SAGE’s chair and the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance – before pressure, including from leading British academics, forced him to reverse this stance.

As Greg Clark, chair of the British parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee, noted: “This visibility of scientific advice is essential for corroborating the government’s claim that it is either ‘following’ or being ‘guided by’ the science.”

Explaining scientific uncertainty

In South Africa, Health Minister Mkhize mounted a comparable defence of the government’s position: “The fact is that the minister accepted and implemented almost all (more than 95%) of the advisories from the MAC on COVID-19 and, in the interest of transparency, published the advisories digitally despite there being no legal obligation to do so.”

The credibility of public science can also be undermined by the inherently uncertain nature of scientific observations and conclusions and the provisional character of the prescriptions that may result. For example, in reflecting on the measures taken to contain the COVID-19 pandemic at the beginning of the outbreak, Karim said: “There were no [research] papers on how to start or end a lockdown.”

The point was taken up by Anne Cambon-Thomsen of the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, who addressed ethical concerns around the international science community’s responses to the outbreak at the webinar hosted by the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

Noting that scientific uncertainty can lead to “non-consensus and debate among scientists”, she decried the role played by a sensationalist media in highlighting such differences as conflict rather than “explaining to the public why we have these discrepancies and their basis, and that this is normal”.

In reflecting on the experience of the pandemic in Malaysia, Jemilah Mahmood, who has been special advisor to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on public health since the beginning of the outbreak, stressed the importance of scientists nipping misinformation – particularly as this is spread via social media – in the bud.

She emphasised the importance of scientific independence in managing public health crises at the Japan Science and Technology Agency discussion: “In Malaysia the science community is very independent. Politicians take instructions from the scientists.

“If you politicise health, you will get into a lot of trouble. So, the question is: How to ringfence scientists? That requires leadership to acknowledge that you need evidence-based, fact-based decision-making, and not politicising the crisis.”

As Pedersen noted, reflecting on the power gap between officials and scientists: “We have constantly to negotiate the distance between policy and science and we are learning how to become better at that.”