The role of science acknowledged in fight against COVID-19

COVID-19 has underscored the importance of science as a feature in every household.

This was the sentiment shared by epidemiologists Professor Salim Abdool Karim and Dr. Anders Tegnell during the annual Nobel Inspired Public Lecture.

Hosted by the National Research Foundation (NRF) in partnership with the Swedish Embassy in Pretoria, the virtual lecture took place under the theme “The meaning of science in the age of COVID-19.

Thursday’s lecture coincides with the announcements of the Nobel Laureates, which this year, will be announced between 5 and 12 October 2020.

With the world still dealing with the blow of the pandemic, this year’s lecture explored the meaning of science, the interplay between the social context and scientific knowledge, and the actual search for a cure for COVID-19.

The lecture brought together South African COVID-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee Professor Salim Abdool Karim and Sweden’s state epidemiologist Dr. Anders Tegnell in conversation with Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism Editor-in-chief, Mia Malan.

As people around the world faced the pandemic, science became an everyday tool on how to conduct their lives. This, Professor Karim says, made science accessible and no longer confined to ivory towers.

“Science has become the bulwark against conspiracy theories, fake news, and fear mongers. In the age of COVID-19, science changed and defined what people can or cannot do and has new importance in decision making,” said Karim.

Discussing the government’s approach to Covid-19, science took on many new meanings – among them being a guiding light, demystifying what’s in store, and a savior in pandemic response.

“But science is about uncertainty amidst the data, the contestation of ideas, offering interpretations and is not necessarily value-free. Scientific conclusions are often views or interpretations of the evidence with substantial uncertainty – shades of grey with little black or white,” said the Professor.

Reflecting on his country’s response to the pandemic, Dr. Tegnell said his government swiftly implemented restrictions, taking into consideration its demographic make-up of an aging population.

“We looked at nursing homes and primary schools and closed them and we noticed that big gathering was a problem so we limited those. The limitations were possible because in Sweden you get financial compensation when you are sick and stay home,” he said.

Socio-economic factors

Equally, Tegnell highlighted the role played by socioeconomic factors in addressing the pandemic.

“Living standards are very important factors and we saw that very clearly during COVID-19 in Sweden, that poor areas in the Swedish cities have been more severely hit, especially early on, than the more affluent parts.  So socio-economic factors so often in public health, plays an important role also in COVID-19,” he said.

In contrast to South Africa, Dr. Tegnell said the Swedish public understood that science is not always clear-cut.

“So they understood that we act on the information we have right now when more information becomes available and we will improve on that,” he said.

On lessons learned, Professor Karim said the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance of having teams of individuals that form the country’s pandemic preparedness.  –












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