Our Leaders, Our Institutions, and Our Media Have Failed Us. Here’s How.

It is difficult to write about Covid-19 without feeling that you are simply adding to the cesspool of unsolicited opinion and the ceaseless stream of obfuscating pseudo-facts. It is also hard to not write about Covid without appearing self-absorbed and insensible of the crisis. Yet, it might also be argued that it is an abdication of civic duty to stay silent when you see and hear things that really shouldn’t be said or done.

The pandemic has actually created and/or amplified several crises all at once. It has created a health crisis, a financial crisis, a political crisis, a social crisis, a crisis of natural justice, a crisis of morals, and a crisis of ethics. No one is unaffected and everywhere there is suffering of one kind or another.

People are suffering, but who has been harmed the most? Is it the patient fighting for his life in intensive care? Is it the confused pensioner living alone or in a care home? Is it the bereaved relative? Is it the serf-worker in the global garment industry who has cynically been put in harm’s way for profit. Or, is it the small business owner who has spent a lifetime building a livelihood only, to see it virtually it wiped out in a matter of months?

Some scientists, politicians and media commentators, alongside business figures and scions of industry, have long been arguing that the biggest casualty of all is Project Britain. They seem to own several direct lines to science that fits that opinion, and unfettered access to media outlets that are only too willing to promote it. Their machinations should make this a time for assertive, informed, and heads-up leadership to come forward and take control, but the rump of our politicians, scientists and communicators have shown little in the way of comprehension or competence.

Socially distanced medics waiting for the call-up in Emilia-Romagna

I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic about the importance of effective communication and the conspicuous lack of it at every level of government, science, and the media. We are presently staring down the barrel of another serious surge of Covid infections, yet the fundamental imperative of good public communication is no more supported or respected today than it was at the outset.

My examples will be confined to the Scottish experience where the extent of the outbreaks has been less severe, but their impact has been proportionately just as great as anywhere else in the UK. Before I address them, I want to put three obstructive position statements that are the weapons of choice for any Scottish politician, scientist or journalist who finds themselves on the back foot.

The first is the misdirecting opening clause that begins, ‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing’. This, in reality, means ‘I was completely wrong but I am never going to admit it because it will only undermine my position’. The next one, oft-heard during this pandemic, is ‘I don’t recognise that..’, which actually means ‘go away you small and unimportant people’. Finally, there is the caveat that ‘we don’t know enough about the virus’, which is bolted on to every answer to the most mildly challenging question.

The important thing to understand, however, is that the earlier mis-steps in communicating the known quantities of viral spread, infection control, and public behaviour are continuing unchecked.

The first cracks began to appear with the statement made by Catherine Calderwood, who was at the time the CMO for Scotland. At a televised briefing, she stated that the virus presented a low risk of aerosol infection among crowds gathered at outdoor events. The virus would, she said, simply “dissipate” into the air. The context for this assessment was the decision to green light the upcoming rugby international at Murrayfield.

Clearly, she had never been to a match at the national stadium otherwise she would have understood something about personal space in toilet facilities, at food and beverage concessions, on public transport, and in taxis to and from the ground. Not to mention the queues on entry and the caterpillar crawl of packed bodies as they leave via a narrow bottleneck and mingle on the Corstorphine Road. In those situations personal space is non-existent.

It does not matter that there was no surge in cases in the weeks following the match. It allowed an argument that crowds at outdoor events were relatively safe to become embedded in the public psyche. This was utterly irresponsible because it inferred that infection routes for Covid-19 could be selectively guessed at, and that one guess was as good as another. Exemplary public communications were derailed from that point onwards and the government has been struggling to get it back on track ever since.

The virus, in a matter of days, spread across Europe and took hold in Italy, France and Spain. People died and healthcare systems were under severe strain, if not at breaking point. There was more than enough understanding then of the way viruses spread and the potential impact of Covid to establish a firm narrative based on prevention, rather than the shaky foundations of mitigation, suppression and the veneer of control. I was very far from alone in thinking that our governments had called it incorrectly when they tried to avoid restrictions and the eventual lockdown. They then managed these measures clumsily with poor communications and too many after-the-fact caveats. That is why many of us opted for self-imposed restrictions rather than wait for officialdom to acknowledge the fight that we were facing.

This narrative of disrupting rather than halting the spread of Covid in Scotland continued throughout the summer with guidance and rules designed to curb the infection rate. At the same time, self-regarding officials, randy scientists, supercilious politicians, arrogant aristos, and public personalities decided that these restrictions did not apply to them. More seriously, the government had only partly won over public minds with too many lockdown violations in the community and too little enforcement. The public still hadn’t understood and accepted that they were in a marathon and there was to be no sprinting to the finish line at Christmas.

What did the press do to help? Well, they ran a relentless campaign of disinformation based on scientific studies that hadn’t even been peer-reviewed; actively looked for flaws in the science and defects in government directives; and, above all, agitated for a premature return to normality. Apart from the usual suspects in the right-wing press, STV News was especially guilty in this respect and for a time looked like the publicity department of the Licencing and Victualers Association.

More generally, the empty cliché of ‘the new normal’ was recycled ad nauseam while life for those unlucky enough to have caught the virus would, if they survived, never be the same again. Far from embracing the new normal, the media, across the board, moaned and whined about how long it might last and gave ample space to football managers and pub chain owners who wanted to force the issue and get things back to the way they were.

That was where much of the damage was done because it served to split public opinion on priorities and undermined the government. That damage will continue unless truly creative thinking is brought to bear upon the various situations caused by Covid-19.

Many thoughtful scientists around the world have postulated on the best course of action but must of them are critical thinkers who can communicate the multiple facets of a particular proposal. In the Scottish arena, the science is, well, just ‘the science’ and we all have to follow it, even if we don’t know what it is or whether it is more reliable than the pub bore.

The current CMO for Scotland is, compared to Jason Leitch, the invisible man. We don’t know what the CMO thinks of the science. So, we are handed over to Leitch who is in charge of the public communication of the science, but he never tells us what the science is, beyond reminding us that the ill-used r-number is important.

None of the above have chosen, for instance, to sufficiently address and communicate the things we have come to understand since the start of the pandemic. The places they have boldly not gone in their briefings and interviews include:

  • Research and updated information on re-infection; what we know about the prevalence and behaviour of post-infection antibodies
  • Instances where patients have repeatedly tested positive for Covid-19, yet shown no symptoms whatsoever
  • The fundamental difference between PCR and antigen testing and their usefulness relative to each other
  • The absolute relationship between new cases and increased testing capacity
  • Details about the efficacy of early treatment with steroids, and the physical circumstances (eg shared toilet facilities, motorway services) in which Covid-19 may thrive.

These questions are discussed frankly, along with with contradictory answers and ideas in the pages of scientific journals. That is what ‘the science’ is: it’s a continuous debate, it is not an answer in itself and it needs to be distilled for public consumption.

Private sector science hasn’t helped itself much either with its unseemly ‘race for the vaccine’ and a willingness to feed those with an appetite for a quick cure. Even the widely respected Lancet came a cropper earlier in the year when it published bogus science from a bogus source but, in truth, the smoke is beginning to clear.

The recent revelation in the Guardian that the scientific community is ‘split’ over the way forward confirms that science does not speak with one voice. Far from it. The Guardian should know better than anyone; it publishes everything that every one of these voices says, whether it is credible or not. The paper covers itself by quoting them as ‘experts’ and anyone in a white lab coat qualifies as an expert in their eyes. Everything they say, even if it is codswallop, comes with a ring of authenticity because they are all ‘experts’.

The biggest failures of all are at the BBC. In a time of crisis, the four nations look to the national broadcaster for that quiet, calm voice of reason. Yet, it does nothing of the kind. Instead, after seven months of Covid-19, we still get misreporting and misrepresentation, this time of an inept, badly expressed public statement by Universities Scotland.

The story concerns the edict (or was guidance, or an instruction or a request? We’re still not sure) that students should not “socialise outside their households” (i.e. halls of residence). BBC Scotland News wrote on their website ‘students banned from the pub’ (a lie by any other name would stink just as much) and have, despite criticism, failed to fully retract the piece, or update readers on the retraction/qualification of the original edict/request by Universities Scotland.

In the same twenty-four hour period, Jason Leitch, following the reinstatement of curtailed movement between households, had to be asked if the exceptions made for “extended families” also applied to students, particularly first-year undergraduates. Well, first he said yes, but then he had to “clarify” that he really meant no. Most of this was and still is communicated and discussed on an American social media platform that has no official role in communicating important issues regarding the pandemic and is not fit for that purpose.

As far as national broadcasting is concerned, the pandemic has served to define the four nations as self-determining entities in all but name. That is particularly true of Scotland where a very slightly left of centre electorate is ill-served by a deeply conservative editorial line. It is long past time, however, for an editorially independent, national media platform that is more interested in diligence, veracity and the common interest than it is in the business sector, the political establishment, or the tin gods of science.

There is an overwhelming need for a singular voice in Scotland that can properly interrogate power and constructively influence public thinking. The first task for such a platform would be to shift the present narrative around Covid-19 away from ‘control and eliminate’ towards ‘understand and conform’.

From the outset, the virus has, for the most part, controlled our behaviour and its own destiny. We cannot “control” Covid-19, we only control ourselves. The best way to do that is to have a command of the facts that unite the science and communicate them in an exemplary manner.

One example of several slogan-based messaging that deserves ridicule rather than credit. They might as well have chosen ‘Keep Britain Tidy’

The salient facts about Covid-19, aside from the danger to health, is that it is especially fond of density, proximity and duration, especially in confined spaces. These are the most important incontrovertible facts about Covid-19. Those are the facts that should have been guiding the response from the beginning and still require amplifying today.

Universities Scotland, namely the principals, knew this when they encourage students to take up their places at Universities and enter halls of residence. They did nothing to prepare the ground and instead installed students up to seven at a time into each of the flats with shared kitchen, toilet and shower facilities.

They did nothing to provide a safe, imaginative alternative to the fresher’s week ritual (socially-distanced masked ball anyone?) except some lame online quizzing and ‘useful’ information. Then they stood by and watched outbreaks rapidly spin out of control, and then they blamed their own bad decisions on a ‘minority of students. Then they issued threats and, hired marshals to patrol the campus and called the cops to place the student body in halls of residence under house arrest. It’s not even clear if ALL the students are in confinement or only in those blocks where an outbreak has occurred. And these prinicpals are supposed to be the top brains in the country.

As for science, it has, so far, signally failed to unite behind even those few incontrovertible facts which politicians cannot bend to their will. Even though the facts around proximity, density and duration have been freely available from the outset, these politicians and the media that they feed has too often converted, inverted, or blatantly misreported them. Too often during this pandemic, our political representatives, including those in opposition, have allowed the media to present the public with a half-baked cake that has required reheating or the addition of more substantial ingredients.

It will take clear heads, first-rate minds, and determined personalities to correct these collective failures and resist those who would disrupt Scotland’s response (much less the UK’s) to Covid-19. Anyone who does not see that poor public communication is failing the health professionals presently making inroads into treatments for the virus will never see a competent Scotland achieve greater self-determination, much less independence.

M. Stephen Clark

Photo Credit:Dipartimento Protezione Civile