Actual experts are facing a backlash from pundits.

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Analysis – Our epidemiologists and Covid modellers have recently been subjected to a barrage of insults from commentators and columnists, making their often thankless job even more difficult.

Microbiologist Siousxie Wiles and epidemiologist Michael Baker.

Photo: RNZ / Supplied

The 19 months of this pandemic have been fractious for the media. It’s been hard for our most prominent commentators to agree on anything, whether it’s the need to lock down, open up, deliver quick economic intervention or hold our nerve against calls for economic intervention.

Lately though, many of our pundits have aligned against a common enemy. Not Covid-19, which they’re in favour of accommodating to a greater extent. Instead they’ve formed a joint front against the epidemiologists who keep warning about the grave dangers posed by Covid-19.

It started last month, when the Herald’s business editor Fran O’Sullivan accidentally tweeted what was meant to be a private message to Covid modeller Rodney Jones, thanking him for a “well-timed article” and calling out the government for relying on “bogus modellers like Hendy”.

O’Sullivan apologised the next day.

But anti-expert views have surfaced again over the last week or so.

Over at Stuff, political editor Luke Malpass argued that it’s time to start looking beyond what he called the “epidemiological echo chamber”.

“You can’t keep people locked down indefinitely, even if it were desirable – which it clearly isn’t,” he wrote, in a searing critique of a course of action no epidemiologist is currently calling for.

That was comparatively tame. At Newstalk ZB, early morning host Kate Hawkesby stepped up the criticism in an on-air monologue putting epidemiologist Rod Jackson and microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles on blast for “freaking out” over the pandemic which has killed five million people globally.

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“Normality is calling,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, in going hard and early on the fear mongering, and in pursuing it for so long, there’s still a large chunk of New Zealanders trapped inside the fear and unable to get out. The epidemiologists – given so much airtime and limelight throughout this pandemic, risk becoming increasingly obsolete and irrelevant.”

That was still nothing compared to what Bill Ralston wrote in his regular column originally published by The Listener, and republished by the Herald.

Following a call for harsher penalties on the vaccine resistant, he said it could also be time to “lock up the epidemiologists, microbiologists and Covid modellers who continually sound like prophets of doom”. Their crime: creating a climate of “fear and depression”.

It’s easy to imagine why many pundits don’t love our current tendency to ask epidemiologists for advice. If we start insisting on listening to people who are experts in their subject matter, it presents an existential risk to their entire field.

The commentators are also clearly frustrated at the Michael Bakers and Shaun Hendys of the world for failing to get on board our trip toward the freedom of a mostly vaccinated summer.

But as it turns out, fear and depression may be a completely rational response to our current Covid trajectory.

Auckland recorded 94 Covid-19 cases on Monday and 102 yesterday, tracking neatly with the more pessimistic paths laid out by the so-called “prophets of doom”.

Overseas, countries which have embraced freedom have found it comes at enormous cost.

Newstalk ZB UK correspondent Gavin Grey made that clear yesterday, delivering a sobering reality check to opening up advocates like Kate Hawkesby during his on-air chat with Kate Hawkesby.

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His update on post-Freedom Day Britain revealed that following the beckoning call of normality has resulted in roughly 50,000 Covid-19 cases per day and 800 deaths per week in the country, along with creating a new, more infectious strain of the Delta variant.

The country is looking at reimposing restrictions, Grey said.

“Oh that’s so depressing. Here we are still dealing with Delta in our neck of the woods. What about Russia suspending its diplomatic mission to Nato?” replied Hawkesby.

It’s possible that our epidemiologists, modellers, and other experts sound so pessimistic not because they enjoy fear and depression, but because it’s an intellectually credible response to a virus that continues to kill thousands of people every day while causing massive long-term sickness and economic damage.

In other fields, having nearly every specialist sing from the same song sheet would be regarded favourably. People will be more confident in taking a chemo drug if 99 percent of cancer specialists believe it is safe, as opposed to 40 percent.

In the case of our Covid experts, it’s seen them labelled an “echo chamber” or “Greek chorus”.

That was difficult to accept. Kate Hannah, a principal investigator at Te Pnaha Matatini, pointed out that the Herald has previously covered the waves of abuse experienced by our most public Covid experts, presumably in a critical manner. Ralston’s column, she claims, helped normalise the abuse.

Perhaps the messages of our epidemiologists and modellers did not sit well with our political commentators. They haven’t always been well-liked by everyone. However, adhering to them has resulted in us having among the fewest deaths and highest levels of freedom over the last 20 months, as measured by the Oxford Stringency Index.

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Even if that doesn’t earn our experts automatic respect and adulation, they’ve at least earned the right to fewer pejoratives from their media critics.


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