Position Statement No. 18: Public communication during the pandemic – transparency and responsibility

We call for the establishment of an institution in Poland whose role would involve constantly monitoring impending health threats, communicating them to the public, and providing information about how to address them. The institution should have a multidisciplinary team of experts operating independently of the government and receiving permanent funding. The opinions and recommendations of the experts should be made directly and publicly available.

In March 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic, a vast majority of the Poles listened carefully to the health minister’s announcements and were prepared to follow his guidelines. Soon, however, the Poles began to ignore government decisions. In May 2020, only one in four Poles trusted the government to fight the pandemic effectively. This result gave us the last place in the trust ranking among the EU countries (Eurofound, 2020). After a year and a half of the pandemic, a significant portion of the Polish public believes that the pandemic is a conspiracy of politicians or major pharmaceutical companies, the virus poses no threat, and vaccinations are harmful to health (CBOS, 2021). This has led to a widespread disregard for sanitary rules and epidemic restrictions as well as to aversion to vaccination. Inconsistent statements on the issue of the pandemic made by government officials have contributed to this change in public attitudes. In addition, coronavirus skeptics and anti-vaccination movements have turned out to be well-heard and well-organized, whereas the voices of experts have been relatively poorly audible. Some of the communication problems have also resulted from deliberate propaganda and disinformation measures intended as a means to political ends for those in power and other interest groups that want to spread conspiracy theories and destabilize society (OECD, 2020). Under the circumstances, the public has been exposed to inconsistent yet relatively powerful messages of an irrational nature that call into question scientific facts.  All this has caused us to lose the potential to fight the pandemic in a way that would minimize health-related, social, psychological, and economic costs. Such mistakes continue to be made, which shows that the efforts to encourage the Poles to get vaccinated lack effectiveness.

The role of independent expert centers

Judging by the manner of providing information about the pandemic so far, we could get the impression that in Poland it is politicians who know best how to fight the coronavirus. The prime minister-affiliated Medical Council has been operating since November 2020. Unlike in other countries, however, it was set up on an ad hoc basis, and the records of its meetings are not publicly available. This is doing nothing to increase trust. In many countries, the pandemic-related issues are addressed by independent research centers: national public health institutes (such as the Robert Koch Institute in Germany and Public Health England in the UK) or advisory groups (such as the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, in the UK). In addition, there are also specialized agencies at the European Commission level such as the Joint Research Center, the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). These are all permanent institutions and advisory groups, as opposed to ones set up in response to a crisis, so they have experienced experts and specialized knowledge. They are a permanent part of the institutional order, and they operate independently of the government. It is these institutions that work out key recommendations based on current scientific data. Such recommendations are public yet not binding upon the authorities. It is experts from such centers that have the mandate to spread knowledge about the pandemic, and they are as a rule trusted by people.

Communicating uncertainty

Some of the communication problems encountered by the authorities result from the fact that it is difficult to inform the public about something that is new, previously unknown, and is changing rapidly. Hence the mistakes, ambiguities, and messages that leave the public disoriented and erode trust in official information. Effective communication in crisis situations must be particularly well-planned, based on the best knowledge of experts, consistent, responsible, and honest. Communicating the pandemic-related uncertainties in a skilled way is crucially important.

Uncertainty about facts and decisions is an inherent part of scientific knowledge, including knowledge about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. The state of our knowledge is invariably open to revision as we witness the emergence of new data, methods, technologies, and contexts. We have experienced this throughout the pandemic. Such changes should be treated as something natural. However, the public finds it hard to accept uncertainty because it sparks anxiety and negative emotions. Therefore, it is very important to openly communicate uncertainty, which means providing information about what is currently known, what remains unknown, and what may change.

Communicating risks

The purpose of risk communication is to improve public understanding of the nature of the threats, their level (for example, the likelihood of negative consequences), and the steps that should be therefore taken. Effective risk communication should consist of four stages. Stage one involves identifying what people should know to take appropriate steps when faced with a given threat. Here, it is crucial to collaborate with experts who have the most up-to-date knowledge about the disease and its course. Stage two involves establishing what people think about the threat, how they perceive it, and how they make their decisions. Stage three is about creating the message that will be conveyed to the public (here, it is important to identify the discrepancies between expert knowledge and naïve beliefs, adjust the form of the information to the public’s knowledge and cognitive competence, and make sure that the message is comprehensible). In stage four, it is crucial to monitor whether the message has the intended effect.

Every message, no matter what it pertains to, should always be clear, simple, and consistent, and any change in relation to the previous message should be properly justified. Many of the problems associated with risk communication have their origin in stage two, or the failure to properly identify people’s beliefs and opinions on a specific issue. The message should be formulated in a way that takes into account the specific characteristics of the group to which it is addressed. Different groups have different fears and related beliefs about the pandemic and its causes, as well as coping methods.

Fake news on the Internet

Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube have become a primary source of information about health for people around the world (Cinelli et al., 2020). According to the OECD’s 2020 report on COVID-19 disinformation, about one in three people were exposed to false information about COVID-19 on social media and took such information seriously. The research cited in the report also demonstrates that disinformation is a lot more widespread than information about the disease that come from reliable sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the ECDC. For this reason, combating disinformation, or false information spread intentionally to mislead the recipients, has been identified by the European Commission and WHO experts as one of the most important tasks in the fight against the pandemic.

In response to the pandemic, some Internet platforms have taken steps (Tech Transparency ProjectEUvsDiSiNFOEU DisinfoLab) to reduce the spread of false and misleading information about COVID-19. Examples include automatically pointing users to official sources of information about COVID-19; highlighting, making publicly available, and prioritizing content from reliable sources; removing offers containing false or misleading reviews of products that prevent or treat COVID-19; and offering the authorities free advertisements on the topic of COVID-19. Public authorities should work with these platforms as well as focus their efforts not so much on denying false opinions (studies show that such interventions are barely effective) as on protecting social media users from their influence.  For the achievement of this goal, it is important to:

  • monitor social media to identify fake news that is gaining popularity on the Internet and preparing responses,
  • take regular surveys of reactions to ongoing disinformation to identify emerging misconceptions,
  • identify and educate members of local and online communities who could spread crucially important true information (such as employers, directors, religious leaders, and student governments).
  • reinforce positive social norms (community norms),
  • allow public communication experts to become involved in the information process at the stage of formulating messages.


 Mistakes in the information policy pursued so far have caused many people in Poland to ignore the threat posed by the pandemic and to refrain from getting vaccinated against SARS-Cov-2. Professional, transparent, responsible, and honest communication is crucially important in the fight against the pandemic. We recommend following the example set by many countries and taking action in the following areas: expert advice, education of the public, and the inclusion of its members in the fight against the pandemic through broad public consultations.

It is crucial to:

  • set up a body of experts or strengthen a specialized institution, both of which should be independent of the government and receive permanent funding,
  • take firm steps to hold accountable those in positions of public trust (doctors, scholars) who openly deny the basic principles of science and the current state of knowledge,
  • work out a crisis communication strategy that includes close collaboration with experts from specialized research centers,
  • work out strategies to address various types of disinformation (both fake news spread intentionally to destabilize the country and false information resulting from ignorance) and support initiatives aimed at raising the level of digital competence among members of the public,
  • introduce knowledge about public health into the school curricula to promote from an early age proper pro-health attitudes, the ability to critically assess health information, and methods of coping with health crises. Examples include the British initiative introducing Personal, Social, Health, and Economic Education as a curriculum subject in primary schools.
  • develop dialogue between experts, decision makers, and the public by supporting independent science journalism and science popularizers.

About the team

The Interdisciplinary COVID-19 Advisory Team to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences was set up on 30 June 2020. The team is chaired by Prof. Jerzy Duszyński, President of the PAS, with Prof. Krzysztof Pyrć (Jagiellonian University) as deputy chair and Dr. Anna Plater-Zyberk (Polish Academy of Sciences) as its secretary. Other members of the team are:

  • Aneta Afelt (University of Warsaw)
  • Małgorzata Kossowska (Jagiellonian University)
  • Radosław Owczuk, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)
  • Anna Ochab-Marcinek (PAS Institute of Physical Chemistry)
  • Wojciech Paczos (PAS Institute of Economics, Cardiff University)
  • Magdalena Rosińska, MD (National Institute for Public Health – National Hygiene Institute, Warsaw)
  • Andrzej Rychard (Institute of Philosophy and Sociology PAN),
  • Tomasz Smiatacz, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)


Bruine de Bruin, W., & Bostrom, A. (2013). Assessing what to address in science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (Supplement 3), 14062 LP – 14068.

Cinelli, M., Quattrociocchi, W., Galeazzi, A. et al. The COVID-19 social media infodemic. Sci Rep 10, 16598 (2020).

Eurofound (2020), Living, working and COVID-19 dataset, Dublin.

OECD (2020). Combatting COVID-19 Disinformation on Online Platforms.