Position Statement No. 5: COVID-19 Advisory Team Position Statement on the need of strategy for managing the pandemic in times of social unrest

The pandemic is a major social problem, one which can only be solved through collaboration between the public authorities, a broad range of scientific experts, and the media.

We are still some way off from reaching a scientific breakthrough – such as a vaccine or effective treatment – which would help us combat the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the pandemic is becoming increasingly widespread, and infections are spreading locally during our everyday activities rather than through travel. As a result, the pandemic is increasingly becoming a social problem, while of course remaining a major medical challenge. And it is a social problem not just because it is affecting growing numbers of the population; it is also becoming less abstract as we are increasingly seeing it affecting our friends and family.

We are entering the next stage of the pandemic: we are no longer perceiving it as something dangerous yet intangible, but rather as a direct threat. We are seeing an overlap of two spheres of experience – the somewhat abstract news pouring in from all over the globe, and our very real, personal situations. This new stage, with its accompanying restrictions and uncertainty as to the future of the pandemic, is stirring powerful social emotions.

In Poland, the situation is further complicated by the mass protests following the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling of 22 October 2020 outlawing abortion in almost all cases. The reopening of this controversial topic, which had already caused mass protests in the past, has driven a major portion of the population to decide that the potential risk of coronavirus infection poses a lower risk than the loss of freedom of choice – involving a decision as important and personal as aborting a pregnancy which would otherwise result in the birth of a baby with fatal deformities or health problems.

Understanding social phenomena accompanying the current phase of the COVID-19 pandemic is essential if we are to gain control of how things play out in the coming days and weeks, which in turn is essential if we are to prevent the collapse of the healthcare system and the tragic consequences if this were to happen. It is absolutely essential for society to have input from sociologists, social psychologists, geographers and economists as well as physicians, virologists, epidemiologists, molecular biologists and other healthcare experts. Only a multidisciplinary team can provide comprehensive, competent advice to meet the current challenges. The alternative would potentially mean dealing with several conflicting opinions based purely on the scope and requirements of a given discipline rather than driven by the common good.

The signatories of this Position Statement form just such a multidisciplinary team, and our goal is to formulate advice benefitting the entire society. We know that as individuals we are not helpless in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, even without great support from the public authorities. Our behavior affects whether the next wave of the pandemic will pass without unnecessary deaths. There are many measures each and every one of us can take to minimize the risk of infection. The simplest ways of protecting ourselves and those around us are maintaining social distancing, wearing masks and washing/disinfecting our hands regularly.

However, if these recommendations are to be widely followed, they must be built on reliability and trust, which in turn must come from at least two important circles. First, the message sent by political leaders must be strong and consistent. Inconsistent, incoherent messages – or, worse still, contradicting decisions – are extremely unhelpful when it comes to controlling the pandemic. The second group consists of scientific circles and the media, whose message must also be clear and consistent. The reliability and dependability of the message is one thing, but even the sincerest communication may not be sufficiently convincing. It seems that facts no longer speak for themselves, and they are losing out to “narratives.” We are lacking a powerful, rational narration or “story” about the pandemic – a story explaining where we are and where we want to be and how. Such a campaign should be prepared by the authorities on the national and regional levels and by non-governmental organizations. Any information campaigns should be led by representatives of scientific and cultural centers and leaders of acclaimed social organizations. They could even feature leading experts such as Professors Anthony Fauci and Christian Drosten. The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a local problem affecting a single country; we are a part of the European and global communities. It is clear to us that the pandemic is spreading regardless of political or any other boundaries. Given the major threat posed to our health as individuals and communities, it is high time to propose a united strategy for managing the pandemic.

The reliability of any messages promoting rational behavior in the face of the pandemic is diluted by those originating from groups questioning the very existence of the pandemic. Such groups are increasingly well organized and able to play on social fears and fatigue with the continuing restrictions, and their narratives are not being publicly refuted. This should be the role of the authorities, the media and scientific circles.

Rational social behavior must be promoted clearly and consistently on several levels. Decision-makers and experts must be in agreement, and their decisions must be consistent with the nature of the pandemic (e.g. promoting understanding of what’s happening, explaining how we can protect ourselves and highlighting the benefits of our actions). Additionally, it is extremely important that the narrative concerning the pandemic is consistent with the nature of our society: a society which values freedom but is willing to follow restrictions as long as they are understood to protect the society as a whole.

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 PAS, with Prof. Krzysztof Pyrć (Jagiellonian University) acting as deputy chair. Dr. Aneta Afelt (University of Warsaw) is the secretary. Other members are Prof. Radosław Owczuk (Medical University of Gdańsk), Dr. Anna Ochab-Marcinek (PAS Institute of Physical Chemistry), Dr. Magdalena Rosińska (National Institute of Public Health – National Institute of Hygiene), Prof. Andrzej Rychard (PAS Institute of Philosophy and Sociology) and Dr. Tomasz Smiatacz (Medical University of Gdańsk).