Covid-19 media engagement

Shortly after China lock-downed Wuhan, I was contacted by Apoorva Mandavilli for a piece originally intended for the New York Time. That piece was cancelled due to the fast progressing of events. Fortunately Apoorva saved part of our conversation in this opinion piece in the Undark Magazine on if China can prevent the next epidemic. The fragmented nature of China’s science/public health governance cannot be emphasised enough, but is often overlooked, both by Chinese regulators and by Chinese observers. So unfortunately it often takes a crisis to bring different branches to work together.

Another question I got to asked a lot, both in public and in private, was how much we can trust Chinese science. This was mostly what Peter Harmsen and I discussed on the phone. To put in short, it would be very unwise to not to actively engage with China’s life science community, which accounts for more than one third of the field’s annual outputs. But as I’ve written previously, I can also understand how for some scientists and institutions, there are good reasons to be cautious. Especially for a public crisis such as the Covid pandemic, reliability and accountability matters in transnational collaborations. I was really glad that I was able to introduce Peter to some of bioscientists I met during my fieldwork in China, who were also cited in his Weekendavisen piece Østens visdom.

To be honest, although I was really concerned with the development of this disease in the early phase, including systematically saving articles and screenshots of Chinese sources (as they often got censored and deleted very soon), I found myself soon start to avoid talking about Covid, because the political scenes, both in China and around the world, started to get a bit surreal. And I confess I was confused and, sometimes deeply disappointed. Instead of talking about Covid, I felt I needed to understand what was ‘really’ happening first.

But I did write a piece for Open Democracy at the invitation of my friend Geoffrey Pleyer. The piece was titled ‘Harmoniously denied: The wider implications of China’s censorship on COVID-19‘. I drew both from my personal experience and observations and argued how when censorship is effectively ‘constitutionalised’, it is no longer just a facet of the political culture, but also seeps into the collective mentality that, in Foucauldian terms, ’conducts the conduct’. It bends the society into acquiescing to a harmonious denial of individual, social and scientific prospects. The article seems to have generated more discussion on the Naked Capitalism website though.

One of the (many) unfortunate side-effects of Covid was that the Aspen Institute’s Global Congress on Scientific Thinking & Action originally scheduled to take place this March in Rome was cancelled. This would have been a global forum where we can share global experiences on effective scientific communication. This event was postponed to 2021 and I have no doubt that what everyone has been experiencing in the past few months will only enrich the discussion. I was delighted to take part in the Aspen Institute’s Pandemic Issue on lessons on science communication. This is what I wrote:

COVID-19 has brought the public to witness first-hand science-in-the-making in a multi-centred world and allowed the scientific community to participate in real-time sense-making with various publics on risks and responsibilities. To borrow the term from Silvio Funtowicz, COVID-19 has ushered everyone into an era of “post-normal” science commu- nication, in which the contents being communicated are contingent, objectives conflictual, outreach global, consequenc- es personal, and (re)actions urgent. This further highlights the need to co-develop new approaches of transnational scientific dialogue in and with China, where public engagement is still at a nascent stage.

Really glad that Silvio approved!





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