We need to turn all scientists into sex bombs and keep politicians, police and tabloids well away from public health messaging.
That's the hot take on how we are going to beat COVID-19 - especially true when it comes to this pandemic. One of Australia's leading science communicators thinks sex-bombification is a fantastic innovation. What's the point, asks Rod Lamberts, deputy director of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University, of having great information if no one listens to you or when the politicians undo months of hard work using doctors who believe in demon sperm?
Even when the scientists don't strut their own stuff, others can - and should - do it for them.
That transformation was made pretty clear when earlier this month, InStyle magazine used an image of Anthony Fauci on its cover.
Fauci is on Trump's coronavirus taskforce and is frequently sent to the naughty corner for getting so much air time for his accurate and well-informed commentary. How did InStyle respond? By sexing up Fauci sitting in the sunshine, well-pressed button down shirt, well-worn brown dress shoes, funky socks, wrap-around sunnies. For a bloke his age (and I'm not a whole generation younger), he is in excellent shape. Very trim.
He has the hottest body. Of work. Sadly not my line, but the work of Scott Hoying of Pentatonix (I'd urge you to watch Hoying channel Dr Anthony Fauci to the tune of Alexander Hamilton: "All disaster movies start with a scientist no one listens to.").
How shallow, right? But as Lamberts points out, all you need is the message. You don't really need to understand what r0 means (I hope it means the number of people a sick person infects).
We are doing it here too. If you want proof, check out the Brett Sutton-themed bedspread and masks, creations of Ashley Ellis, who describes Victoria's chief health officer as the number one #covidcrush for many Victorians. See how much we love great science communication? Sutton's also been described as a silver fox.
Lamberts, of ANU, says he has been prosecuting the case for making science and medicine accessible for years - and if the science gets a bit lost in the presentation, that doesn't matter so much, so long as the audience gets the message. We don't actually need to understand the science beneath, just as many of us don't really understand the mechanics of flight or cars. OK, not me anyway. We trust others to know how stuff works.
It's more important, says Lamberts, that the health or science message seems like fun, and that it might be possible to share the values of the person sharing those messages.
"I understand why scientists get caught up in wanting to deliver facts and caveats and not be funny, controversial and sexed-up," he says.
"[But] that's how you reach the non-science side of town."
But even with my phenomenally heteronormative take on what makes an effective health and science communicator (oops, nearly forgot to say how much I love the Kerries, Coleman and Chant), there are things we do which destroy the good work of the Masked King, the Duke of Distancing (another Hoying take on Fauci).
Take, for example, the revelation of the identities of the two young women (teenagers both, some of whom are idiots). They flew into Brisbane loaded with COVID-19. One has explained where she was and who she was with, the other is keeping it to herself. They have definitely put people's lives at risk and are fools, no question - but they are young fools. I mean, it's a total invasion of privacy, but that is not the only problem. My guess is that it will put people off sharing their coronavirus status. For months we have been told that our status will remain private.
My first response was "I want these people to spend a long time in hospital jail". My second response was "God, I'm glad I'm not a teenager now". I'm not the only one who had that exact reaction. Will Grant, who with Lamberts podcasts The Wholesome Show, spent Wednesday night telling his wife the teenagers should be arrested and sent to jail.
Then he saw the coverage unfold.
"And I thought: 'Slow down, while their behaviour is terrible, we are playing into a whole other bunch of stereotypes now'," Grant says. As he points out, it would be great to all be our best selves right now, but we have to recognise that's not always going to be possible for everyone in every circumstance. I think of my 19-year-old self and shudder.
I also recall that in March, a Melbourne couple infected with COVID-19 while in Aspen on a ski trip reportedly did not self-isolate even though that was meant to be what they were doing. They visited shops. They visited a golf course on the Mornington Peninsula. Yet I never saw the "wealthy finance industry figure" and his wife described as an "enemy of the state", although I'm guessing he has more cultural capital than any 19-year-old. He should have understood the social contract in a way that two teenagers never could.
As Grant, also from the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, says, outing is never good public health behaviour: "Stigma doesn't lead to better health outcomes."
How to fight that? Well, we could stop politicians using doctors who believe in demon sperm. One thing we do know: we won't beat COVID-19 using guilt. We can see the impact the sex bombs have on public health messaging. We clearly need a few Sutton impersonators at the border, a few Raina MacIntyre imitators, maybe the Kates (McCartney and McLennan of The Katering Show) could channel the Kerries. In the meantime, we might just need a few more bedspreads.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.