How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

COVID-19: Three Cases for Bleak Optimism

I am anything but a COVID skeptic, as you know. But if you find the tone and conclusions of these three pieces as rare in your media diet as I do for mine, you might consider what that might mean for the relentless grain of communications about COVID from researchers these days — and how research is failing to give us the wider overviews we need for knowledge and action:

  1. McKinsey & Company: ”An optimistic scenario for the US response to COVID-19”

Before you react with anti-McKinsey prejudice, think: It would be much easier (and safer) for a big management consulting house to sell a dire scenario right now, with consulting services to match.

And this article is anything but pollyannish. The authors found their optimism in what they call “the current state of the essential recovery elements that support an optimistic outlook: we’re getting better at reducing transmission, improving case management, and developing a robust pipeline of vaccines. All these also support a hopeful prognosis for the economy.” In other words: science and technology, which have advanced remarkably over the last six months on fronts such as

  • Understanding what we need to do to slow the spread of the virus, both indoors and outdoors;
  • Diagnostics (including screenings in development based on breathalyzer technologies);
  • Management and treatment of the virus — soon to be augmented by therapeutics with neutralizing antibodies already in late-stage human trials; and
  • The pipeline of vaccine candidates — 51 in human trials and more than 250 total in development.

The Achilles heel for reaching the optimistic scenario, the authors keep saying, is communication — not just to overcome vaccine skepticism, but the “behavior change, communication, and education at all levels” required to reduce transmission:

“A wary and skeptical public must be persuaded to follow public-health measures and interventions if they are to be effective. Physicians and health providers must define proper use cases for both screening and diagnostic tests coming to market if they are to be effective. Given COVID-19’s high level of contagiousness, defining and applying test use cases without a proper understanding of test characteristics and human behavior might provide an unwarranted sense of security — for example, by providing false-negative test results — and thereby unintentionally cause an infected person to break with other directives, such as distancing and mask wearing.”

  1. Tim Harford: “A survival guide for the Covid age”

Harford, an economist, journalist, book author and certainly no COVID skeptic, sets out in this piece to answer the plea of a 60-year-old friend living in the UK who has largely stayed in his house for the bulk of the epidemic, but wants to re-enter the world: “What I want is a survival guide for life in the age of Covid.”

The baseline risk Harford finds depends on where you live and on the quality of data available. In the UK, though, the current average infection risk is 44 in a million per day, and the background risk of death or lasting harm is far less than that — one in a million, every day. “Similar to going skiing, taking a short motorbike ride, or taking baths for a year — and considerably less risky than a scuba dive or a skydive,” Harford writes.

Risk for his friend will go up by some unmeasurable level when he walks out the door, and Harford is “worried deeply” about a potential autumn and winter resurgence of the virus. But for now, he estimates, “the risk to most individuals in the UK seems modest.”

  1. The Economist: “The covid-19 pandemic is worse than official figures show. But some things are improving, and it will not go on forever.”

This is the bleakest case of the three, starting with its observation that serosurvey figures for the virus are “alarmingly out of line with the official number of cases” across all nations. This means two things:

  • The disease is far more widespread than official case numbers — perhaps infecting up to 9.3% of the world’s population;
  • The disease is far less deadly than official statistics have made it look, even though it’s likely that the number of deaths has also been grossly undercounted (e.g., closer to 300k in the United States than 200k).

But because pandemic fatigue is setting in across the world, the countries that will succeed managing the virus until there is a vaccine will be those that can test-and-trace quickly and repeatedly (to reduce the time during which infectious people can interact with others). Again, your optimism on this score will vary depending on where you live.

I finished these pieces feeling … not more optimistic (I do live in the United States, after all), but with a wider perspective and sense of possible solution.

Resolved: Research communications should offer that wider perspective and sense of solution, whenever possible.

Resolved: Too much research communications fails on those scores or doesn’t even try.

We need synthesis of the state of knowledge and paths forward. As someone who works with researchers and knows their ability to synthesize and provide perspective, I’m disturbed that we are getting that synthesis and those paths forward from consulting groups and journalists, rather than scientists.

Study-centric science communications whiplashes the public from finding to finding (think nutrition studies) rather than giving citizens the big picture on the state of the science.

And because dramatic findings get the headlines (which is how most people consume new research), the media-industrial science communication complex induces us to think of science in terms of discovery, drama and hype, rather than perspective and possibility.

Whiplash is traumatizing. A whiplashed person is essentially victimized. It’s the farthest thing from empowering.

People take their empowerment where they can get it. I’m getting mine from consultants and journalism, and the uncommon researcher who puts together well-updated knowledge resources. Others get theirs from less savory sources.