LIsa-Maria Kellermayr, an Austrian general practitioner, was a doctor who dedicated her life to her patients and was outspoken about the risks of Covid-19 on Twitter and in the media. She endured months of death threats from conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers. Colleagues expressed frustration at the lack of support she received in dealing with the daily abuse. Kellermayr committed suicide last month.
When news of Kellermayr’s death spread among the medical community, the reaction was one of sadness but not surprise. During the pandemic, scientists have suffered a tremendous amount of abuse and accusations, just trying to do their jobs. I suffered much less than many of my peers, but I still received my share of cyber attacks during the pandemic. I have been the target of tweets, YouTube videos, blogs, viral Facebook posts and malicious changes 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, anti-conspiracy theorists, anti-Bill Gates, anti-Wellcome Trust, anti-medicine, anti-Scottish Government, anti-Tory politicians, all mixed together mysteriously.
In the field of public health, scientists spend their lives investigating problems, trying to find solutions that can save people’s lives, and providing advice on how to prevent people from getting sick. Science is not to become famous, but to accumulate knowledge. The work involves teaching the next generation, conducting research, hopefully producing reliable results and sharing them with others in the discipline. Covid-19 has suddenly put scientists in the spotlight. I don’t think anyone who works in healthcare expected the response they experienced during the pandemic. Those who work in health care are generally nice guys.
Faced with a deadly virus that required an exceptional response, scientists became easy scapegoats. Of course, they are not responsible for losses and collective injuries suffered during the pandemic. Even with the drastic measures that have been put in place to slow the spread of Covid-19, the virus has still caused more than 200,000 deaths in Britain and more than a million in the US. In the UK, the crucial issue has always been the collapse of the NHS. It’s easy to forget that medical services are limited until a loved one needs help. And it’s easy to blame therapists and doctors for waiting without realizing how many hours they work.
Many doctors, scientists, and medical professionals have moved away from this field because they have decided that it is not worth the personal expense. GPs, nurses and trained health workers are exhausted and burnt out, with an estimated 7,000 health workers leaving the NHS every month. Scientists I’ve spoken to are increasingly refusing to be interviewed about vaccines on television and in newspapers because they fear the backlash they might receive from pro-vaxxers.
This has created a vacuum where expert communication should be. Instead, pseudo-celebrities build large followings on platforms such as Twitter, where they spread insidious nonsense, such as the myth that vaccinations involve the use of microchips or that Covid-19 is part of a global hoax. This causes anger and resentment, but does not contribute to the improvement of society and the well-being of people.
Unfortunately, many people now associate public health with restrictions and lockdowns. Managing infectious diseases has always been about figuring out what makes someone sick, trying to figure out how transmission happens, figuring out how to stop it before more people get sick, and developing vaccines and treatments. But in many people’s minds, because of the exceptional response to Covid-19, it has become synonymous with the closure of entire sectors, stay-at-home orders and severe restrictions on mobility and personal freedoms.
Some people who abuse public health experts and scientists have faced consequences: One person who emailed death threats to White House Covid-19 adviser Tony Fauci was sentenced to three years in prison. This needs to be widely reported as a warning to others that there are real penalties for threatening people online or in real life. A partial solution can be found in banning anonymous online accounts. If people had to use their real name on social media, it’s hard to imagine that they’d feel as empowered to spite scientists. This will also get rid of bot traffic.
Institutional support for scientists is also important not only from employers, but also from their colleagues. In cases where violence becomes truly serious, such as death threats and hate speech, scientists and health professionals should feel able to contact the police. You can’t blame those in the public eye for getting bullied for choosing to go on TV or tweet something. When someone brings attention to an important issue and shares information based on their experience, it should be seen as a public service. And these people need to be protected. As the Kellermayr case shows, we need legal and structural change now to protect those who are trying to make a valuable contribution to society.
Devi Sridhar is Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh