Prof Catherine Bennett recalls being in a supermarket the first time she was recognised.
“A woman called out acknowledging she’d seen me on TV. She screamed out, ‘I love you!’”
Bennett, the inaugural chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, is one of a number of Australian experts who have been thrust into the spotlight by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, public appetite for information and analysis has turned researchers into household names.
Throughout the pandemic, Bennett has communicated the latest in Covid-19 developments and research to the public, through media interviews and written analysis. Now, she hardly goes anywhere without being recognised.
“While it happened progressively, it’s still a very strange thing,” she says.
“As a researcher at a university … you want to actually make people’s lives healthier and safer. But you rarely get to hear from the public in the way we are now. It’s a mark of how strange these times are, but at the same time it’s the bit that reinforces your drive to contribute.”
Prof Mary-Louise McLaws has also been approached while in public.
“People will come up and say, ‘thank you very much for talking to us apolitically’, or, ‘you make me feel calm about what’s happening’,” she says.
By day, McLaws is a professor of epidemiology at the University of NSW, and a member of the NSW clinical excellence commission’s Covid infection prevention and control taskforce. By night, she is an independent adviser to the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program on Covid infection and control.
“For two decades, nobody knew the work I did at WHO or with WHO,” says McLaws, who has worked both directly for the organisation and as an external adviser. “I often did it in my holiday time.”
“That’s the thing about epidemiologists … [normally] it’s all behind the scenes.”
Because of time differences, her WHO meetings often run until the early hours of the morning.
“You’re constantly jetlagged and you have no social life,” McLaws says. But she is happy to sacrifice sleep to be informed by cutting-edge, ever-changing scientific research.
“We have update meetings about variants of concern and the impact that has on infection control, and then we are asked to consider whether or not we need to change guidelines and approaches,” she says.
The responsibility of informing policy decisions and communicating to the public is one she doesn’t take lightly.
“When I’m asked for opinions in Australia, I have been criticised that I’m not considering the economy or mental health,” she says. “But I try to remind the listeners or the readers that that’s not part of an epidemiologist’s responsibility – that’s leadership. So you focus on one thing only, and that is your understanding of outbreak and pandemic management.”
Prof Sharon Lewin, an infectious diseases physician and the inaugural director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, takes a similar view.
Lewin co-chairs Australia’s national Covid health and research advisory committee, which advises the chief medical officer. During Victoria’s second wave last year, she was also part of an advisory group to the Victorian treasurer.
“I think my role as a scientist is to ensure that the government and leaders have access to the best synthesis of science at the time, and for their policy to be influenced by the science,” she says.
“You can’t beat a public health crisis with science alone. You need political leadership, and you need civil society.”
In England, the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and his deputy, Jonathan Van-Tam, have both been abused in the street, but Lewin says she has seen nothing similar in Australia.
“I’ve been a bit horrified seeing what has happened in other countries to scientists. I haven’t experienced that myself,” says Lewin, an HIV expert who is friends with Dr Anthony Fauci. “There’s been a real respect for expertise in this country.”
Hassan Vally, an associate professor at La Trobe University, initially wanted to stay out of the media spotlight.
“When this all first hit, I made a decision not to be involved in public commentary, which is kind of ironic,” he says.
“There was a lot of noise, a lot of commentary from non-experts and a lot of commentary from experts in other fields,” he recalls. “I thought it was a complete mess at the beginning and I didn’t want to be contributing to that.”
In the Victorian second wave, Vally took unpaid leave from his university position to lend his expertise to the Victorian aged care response centre for two months.
As the pandemic went on, Vally felt that important public health messages were not being adequately communicated. “Eventually I got contacted by the media and I decided to respond,” he says. “Before I knew it, it was a bit of an avalanche.”
Sharing his scientific opinions has occasionally made him a target of antivaxxers. “There are lots of agendas, and quite powerful people who are spreading misinformation,” Vally says.
“My motivation as a scientist and then as a science communicator is about doing good,” he says. “[It’s] not easy sometimes.”
McLaws, whose experience includes reviewing the response to the SARS outbreak, says she sometimes gets emails from “some very stressed people”.
“I don’t take it personally,” she says. “I think that epidemiologists in [an] outbreak are used to uncertainty and the general public are not.
“We need to develop resilience, particularly in our 20-year-olds and slightly older, because this isn’t going to be the only uncertain time in their life.”
Bennett says negative responses have formed “the absolute minority” of her interactions with the public, but have taken some getting used to. “You could write something about masks or vaccines and you could have an anti-masker attack you and pro-masker attack you for the same comment,” she says.
She has been overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of the public throughout the pandemic.
After TV interviews, people have contacted her about old cups on her shelf and the books she is reading. Without telling her, Bennett’s partner had been changing the book prominently displayed on the shelf behind her, beginning with The Plague by Albert Camus.
“Where people have given me a little thank-you, I often just put it on the shelf behind me. It’s my way of saying: thank you, I’ve received it.
“Whether you’re a scientist, someone doing contact tracing, someone who’s been exposed to a case, someone trying to keep their business alive – everybody’s so impacted by this,” Bennett says.
“It’s just been an extraordinary time to be thrust in the middle in a public role … that somehow connects you across all of this.”