A scientist known to the general public has committed suicide. This must be a wake-up call | Devi Sridhar
Lisa-Maria Kellermayr, an Austrian GP, was a doctor who dedicated her life to her patients and spoke about the risks of Covid-19 on Twitter and in the media. She had endured months of death threats from Covid conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers. Colleagues expressed frustration at the lack of support she received to deal with daily abuse. Last month, Kellermayr committed suicide.
When news of Kellermayr’s death was shared within the medical community, the reaction was one of sadness but little surprise. During the pandemic, scientists have suffered tremendous abuse and blame while simply trying to do their jobs. I suffered much less than many of my colleagues, but I still had my share of attacks online during the pandemic. I have been targeted with tweets, YouTube videos, blogs, viral Facebook posts and malicious revisions to my Wikipedia page. Someone pointed to a global health talk I gave in 2018 as evidence that I caused the Covid-19 pandemic as part of the “deep state”. The attacks came from all sides: anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, conspiracy theorists, anti-Bill Gates, anti-Wellcome Trust, anti-medicine, anti-Scottish government, Conservative politicians, all confusingly mixed together.
In public health, academics spend their lives researching problems, trying to find solutions that can save lives, and giving advice on how to keep people from getting sick. Science is not about becoming famous, but about acquiring knowledge. The job is to teach the next generation, to do research, hoping to get solid results and sharing them with others in the discipline. Covid-19 suddenly put scientists in the spotlight. I don’t think anyone working in global public health expected the backlash they’ve experienced during the pandemic. Those who work in public health are usually the good guys.
Faced with a deadly virus that required an exceptional response, scientists became easy scapegoats. Of course, they are not responsible for the collective losses and trauma suffered during the pandemic. Even with the strict measures that have been put in place to delay the spread of Covid-19, the virus has still caused over 200,000 deaths in Britain and over a million in the United States. In the UK, the crucial issue has always been the collapse of the NHS. It’s easy to forget that health services are limited until a loved one needs care. And it’s easy to blame GPs and doctors for waiting times without realizing the long hours they work.
Many doctors, scientists, and medical professionals have pulled out of the field because they decided it wasn’t worth the personal cost. GPs, nurses and trained medical professionals are stretched and exhausted, and it is estimated 7,000 health workers leave the NHS each month. Scientists I’ve spoken with are increasingly turning down interviews about vaccines on TV and in newspapers because they’re wary of the backlash they might receive from anti-vaxxers.
This created a void where expert communication should be. In its place, pseudo-celebrities create major followers on platforms such as Twitter, where they spread insidious garbage, such as the myth that vaccinations involve microchipped individuals or that Covid-19 is part of a hoax. global. It creates anger and resentment, but it does nothing to improve society or people’s well-being.
Unfortunately, many people now associate public health with restrictions and lockdowns. Infectious disease management has always been about identifying what makes someone sick, trying to understand how transmission occurs, identifying measures to stop that before more people get sick, and developing vaccines and treatments. But in the minds of many people, due to the exceptional response to Covid-19, it has now become synonymous with the closure of entire sectors, confinement at home and severe restrictions on mobility and individual freedoms.
Some people who abuse public health experts and scientists have faced consequences: A man who emailed death threats to White House Covid-19 adviser Tony Fauci has been sentenced to three years from prison. This should be widely reported to warn others that there are real penalties for threatening people, whether online or in real life. A partial solution could be to ban anonymous online accounts. If people were to use their real names on social media, it’s hard to imagine they would feel so capable of insulting scientists. This would also get rid of the flood of bots.
Institutional support for scientists is also essential, not only from employers but also from their colleagues. In cases where the abuse becomes really serious, such as death threats and hate speech, scientists and health workers should feel able to go to the police. People in the public eye shouldn’t be blamed for being mistreated because they decided to go on TV or tweeted something. If someone draws attention to an important issue and shares information based on their expertise, it should be considered a public service. And these people need to be protected. As Kellermayr’s case shows, we need legal and structural changes now to protect those trying to make a valuable contribution to society.
Devi Sridhar is Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email [email protected] or [email protected] In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for assistance. You can also text HOME to 741741 to get in touch with a crisis text line counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service safety rope is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org
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