Scientists report threats of death and aggression during the pandemic

With more than 19 years of experience in research into infectious diseases, physician Marcus Vincius de Lacerda, from Fiocruz in Manaus (AM), needed an escort armed last year after the study it coordinated demonstrated that chloroquine did not work and was unsafe for Covid-19.

The researcher became the target of death threats and personal offenses on social networks by supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro (non-party), who still defends the use of the substance the despite its ineffectiveness at Covid-19.

“It was a public lynching, everything was very aggressive, planned, planned. Many people in the research group are in psychological follow-up to this day, It is very difficult to overcome, it leaves sequelae”, reports Folha.

The case of Lacerda is not isolated. A survey carried out by the scientific journal Nature with 40 scientists from several countries, including Brazil, shows that two thirds of them report negative experiences as a result of their appearances on the media or comments they made on social networks about Covid-19.

About 15 % reported having received death threats, 30% mention emotional and psychological stress, 30% note reputational damage. Physical or sexual threats reached 19% of them. Six scientists said they were physically attacked.

Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, needed a police escort after he and his family received death threats. One of Belgium’s top virologists, Marc Van Ranst, his wife and son were taken to a secret hideout after Jrgen Conings, a former right-wing soldier, vowed to take revenge on virologists and lockdown supporters. Conings was on the run for days and then committed suicide.

UK chief medical adviser Chris Whitty was grabbed and pushed into the street. German virologist Christian Drosten received a package containing a bottle with a liquid labeled “positive” and a note saying to drink it.

Microbiologist Natalia Pasternak, founder of the Questo de Ciencia Institute, noticed an increase in online attacks against her when the talk began about treatments against the Covid-19 unproven and promoted by the Brazilian government, such as ivermectin, the hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin.

“Brazil became the first country in the world to actually promote pseudoscience as a public policy, as we promote the use of unproven drugs for the Covid-19, said Pasternak Nature.

A group of Bolsonaro supporters tried to sue Pasternak for defaming him when she compared him to a plague on her YouTube show . The action was dismissed.

The infectious disease specialist Marcus Lacerda also had to resort to lawyers to defend himself from a chuck va de denncias apresentadas ao Ministrio Pblico de vrios estados, ao Conselho Federal de Medicina e Conep (Comisso Nacional de tica em Pesquisa) aps declaraes do deputado Eduardo Bolsonaro (PSL-SP) em seu Twitter exigindo investigao do estudo.

At the time, he said, the study was interpreted by some as a work done by “PT researchers” who wanted to use high doses of chloroquine on purpose to give the feeling that the substance was dangerous.

“Furthermore, they interpreted that all who died were due to high doses, when in reality they died of severe Covid-19. A lot of people didn’t know our research group and it was a bunch of adventurers found it. We have been working with malaria and chloroquine for 19 years, “says Lacerda.

Although researchers who deal with topics such as climate change, vaccination and The effects of armed violence have also suffered similar attacks by conservative groups, the degree of attacks suffered by scientists during the pandemic appears to be unprecedented, according to the Nature study.

There is a collective complaint in the international scientific milieu that governments, funding agencies and scientific societies have not done enough to publicly defend scientists.

In the article, some researchers say they have learned to deal with harassment by accepting it as an unpleasant but expected side effect of bringing information to the public. For 85% of respondents, their experiences with the media were always or most of the time positive, even if they have been harassed later.

I think scientists need training on how to get involved with the media and also about what to expect from trolls is only a part of digital communication, wrote one of them.

The Nature study, however, suggests that while researchers try to ignore the aggression suffered, this may have a frightening effect on science communication. That’s because scientists who reported a higher frequency of personal attacks were also more likely to say that their experiences greatly affected their willingness to talk to the media in the future.

To Fiona Fox, Chief Executive from the UK Science Media Center (SMC), an organization in London that collects scientific reviews and organizes press conferences for journalists, this is worrying.

It is a great loss if you are a scientist who was engaging with the media, sharing his experience, be removed from a public debate at a time when we never needed him so much, she said in a Nature report.

A topic that has already taken many The scientists do not comment on the origin of Sars-CoV-2. In Australia and the UK, Science Media Centers say it has been difficult to find scientists who are willing to speak publicly on the subject, for fear of being attacked. The British organization claims, for example, that it approached more than 19 scientists to participate in a debate on this issue, but all refused.

Nature’s research was carried out from an adaptation of an informal Australian SMC study that had already captured by seeing the threats and suffering of a smaller group of scientists. The magazine then asked scientific media centers in the United Kingdom, Canada, Taiwan, New Zealand and Germany to send questions to scientists on their media lists who often opine about Covid-19.

Nature has also sent e-mails to researchers from the United States and Brazil who were prominently mentioned in the media.

The more prominent you are the more aggression to get, concluded historian Heidi Tworek of the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver (Canad), who is studying online aggression against health communicators during the pandemic.

For her, these attacks may have little to do with the science itself and more to do with who you’re talking to. If you are a woman or a black person from a marginalized group, the assault is likely to include insults to your personal characteristics, he noted. Canada’s director of public health Theresa Tam, for example, is an Asian-Canadian and the attack against her included racism, according to Tworek.

But both the Australian SMC and the Nature survey found none clear difference between while proportions of violent threats received by men and women.

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