L isa-Maria Kellermayr was a doctor who dedicated her life to her patients and was vocal about the risks of Covid-19 on the internet. She had been the target of death threats. She didn't get the support she needed to deal with the daily abuse. Kellermayr died last month.
The medical community was sad but not surprised by Kellermayr's death. Scientists have been abused and blamed while trying to do their jobs during the Pandemic. I got my share of online attacks, but I didn't suffer as much as others. I was targeted in a number of places. Anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, conspiracy theorists, anti-Bill Gates, anti-Medicine, anti-Scottish government, anti-Tory politicians were all involved in the attacks.
Public health academics spend their lifetimes researching problems, trying to find solutions that can save people's lives and providing advice about how to stop people from getting ill. Building knowledge is what science is all about. Teaching the next generation, doing research and sharing these results with others is what the job entails. Scientists were put in the spotlight by covid-19. I don't believe anyone in global public health expected the backlash they experienced during the Pandemic. Good people work in public health.
Scientists were made scapegoats in the face of a deadly virus. They aren't responsible for the losses and trauma that happened during the Pandemic. More than 200,000 deaths in Britain and more than a million in the United States were caused by the Covid-19 virus even though stringent measures were put in place to slow the spread. The collapse of the National Health Service was the most important issue in the United Kingdom. When a loved one needs care, healthcare services are limited. It is easy to blame doctors for waiting times when they are not working.
Doctors, scientists and medical professionals have stopped working in the field due to the fact that it is not worth their time or money. Thousands of health workers leave the National Health Service every month due to exhaustion and burnt out. I've spoken with scientists who decline interviews with newspapers because they fear backlash from anti-vaxxers.
The vacuum has been created by this. In its place, pseudo-celebrities are spreading false information, such as the myth that vaccinations involve micro-chipping individuals or that Covid-19 is a hoax. This builds anger and resentment, but it doesn't change anything.
A lot of people associate public health with restrictions and lock downs. Identifying what is making someone ill, trying to figure out how transmission is happening, identifying measures to stop this before more people get ill and developing vaccinations and treatments have always been the focus of infectious diseases management. Because of the exceptional Covid-19 response, it has become synonymous with the shutdown of whole sectors, stay-at- home orders and severe restrictions on freedom of movement.
One man who sent death threats to a White House adviser was sentenced to three years in prison. It's a warning to others that there are real penalties for threatening people online or in real life. Banning anonymous online accounts would be a partial solution. It is hard to imagine how people would feel if they had to use their real names on social media. The flood of bots would be eliminated by this.
It's important for scientists to have institutional support from their colleagues as well. Scientists and health workers should be able to go to the police if they get death threats. People in the public eye shouldn't be blamed for receiving abuse because they decided to go on television or use social media. This should be seen as a public service if someone brings attention to an important issue and shares information based on their expertise. Those people should be protected. Legal and structural change is needed to protect those trying to make a difference.
The University of Edinburgh has a chair in Global Public Health.