Public health experts are now the bad guys

Americans used to celebrate Anthony Fauci by putting his face on cupcakes. Now, some are calling for him to be fired.

Fauci, the U.S.s top infectious disease expert, is not alone. An Italian counterpart, Walter Ricciardi, has come under attack from populist League leader Matteo Salvini and his supporters after saying that the countrys lockdown should be kept in place longer to prevent a second wave of the coronavirus.

“I think its a moral and professional duty of scientists to always tell the truth,” Ricciardi told POLITICO.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put scientists in a difficult position. Little-known epidemiologists and virologists are now in front of the cameras telling people to stay at home and keep businesses closed, while the politicians throw their hands up and say theyre just following the science.

Thats made the scientists a target.

This populist anger — fueled by high-level politicians — is increasingly mixing with conspiracy theories.

German public health expert Christian Drosten has received hate mail. The U.K. government said it wont release the names of the experts on its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) for the scientists own safety.

Angry Americans chanted “Fire Fauci” as they protested social-distancing restrictions around the U.S. over the weekend, alongside vaccine-skeptics and the prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. In Italy, Ricciardi found himself in a Twitter-fueled war with Salvini after cautioning against reopening the northern region of Lombardy — and tweeting critical comments of U.S. President Donald Trump.

“He argues with his fellow doctors and with governors, he publicly insults the American president, he said that face masks dont help with anything” Salvini tweeted Sunday. He urged the government to drop Ricciardi from his role as an adviser. “He doesnt get one [thing] right regarding the virus and now hes also insulting Trump!” Salvini added.

This populist anger — fueled by high-level politicians — is increasingly mixing with conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus and anti-vax paranoia. Its “a recipe for disaster,” said Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge.

“The moment people stop trusting public health experts on what to do, it could be the Wild West in terms of what information people are going to cling on to,” said van der Linden.

A great deal of the anger toward public health experts is mixed with some of the conspiracy theories making the rounds, such as claims that the World Health Organization created the virus so it could push vaccines. Anti-vaxxers have also gone after billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates with similar accusations using the hashtags #BillGatesIsNotOurFriend #BillKills and #BillGatesisEvil.

Populist politicians, often linked with anti-science and anti-vaxxer views, are peddling the theories — adding to the headaches for public health experts.

“One very common technique by people who are trying to oppose inconvenient science is to accuse scientists of being political,” said Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive psychology professor at the University of Bristol. He himself faced a similar situation nearly a decade ago when climate change-deniers sent him death threats.

“Scientists like myself, epidemiologists and climate scientists, were always in this dilemma that we have something to say, and some people will find that political,” he said.

Its made all the worse by todays politicians. “The essence of populism is that emotion trumps facts,” Lewandowsky said. “… Leaders, such as Donald Trump or Salvini in Italy — their gut instincts and intuitions are supposed to trump evidence and science, facts and all this other boring stuff.”

However, the criticisms arent only coming from the extremes. In the U.K., for example, scientific counselors have come under fire for being too aligned with the government.

Anthony Fauci, the U.S.s top infectious disease expert | Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

“When you see supposedly independent medical advisors to government tell what are manifest untruths to shore up a political regime whose credibility is rapidly collapsing, you have to say that those advisors have lost their integrity and our trust,” said Lancet editor Richard Horton Sunday night after the daily live press conference at which the U.K.s deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, stood alongside Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

On Monday, Fauci responded to the calls for him to be fired, saying he understands peoples frustrations.

“I think the message is that clearly this is something that is hurting from the standpoint of economics, from the standpoint of things that have nothing to do with the virus,” Fauci said. “But unless we get the virus under control, the real recovery economically is not going to happen.”

Populist ire

Ricciardi has been here before. He said last year he was stepping down as head of Italys National Institute of Health in protest of an “antiscientific” approach in the government, citing Salvinis anti-vaccine views.

This time around, Ricciardi seems to have drawn populist ire for several different statements. Hes advised against lifting lockdowns too quickly, to the apparent frustration of those who want to get the economy moving again. But his critiques of Trump have also ignited a firestorm.

“Elections have consequences,” he tweeted last week. “When the people vote populist and sovereign adventurers, they then make decisions that have consequences, in this case cuts to health innovatiRead More – Source

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