In praise of the experts helping us through COVID-19

OPINION: Epidemiologists, economists, supply-chain managers, and more — here’s to those who volunteer their time to help journalists get it right during the pandemic
By Matt Gurney - Published on Feb 04, 2021
While COVID-19 is a medical crisis, it is so massive that we've needed to become familiar with all sorts of other fields, some only tangentially related. (iStock/FilippoBacci)

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One small marker of how the pandemic has changed our daily lives is how many new words and phrases we’ve all had to learn. The most vivid example for me came in the early summer. My young son was doing a Zoom tutoring session to work on his reading, and his tutor asked him to identify the letters she held up on a flash card, make the appropriate sound, and give an example of a word that used that sound. She held up a W, and my son confidently declared, "That's a W. Www. Www. Www. Like in 'Wuhan.'"

He was very proud of himself — and was baffled when his parents burst out laughing in the other room. But why not? Wuhan starts with W, and it's no surprise that the (then) five-year-old had picked it up.

It's the same for the adults, too. "R-nought." Fomites. Curves to be crushed. Social and physical distancing. Lockdowns and curfews. Even if the words and concepts aren't new, their usage is. Millions of kids across North America already knew what a lockdown was. They practised them at school. The word now has a newer, broader meaning (though arguably — and remarkably — not more horrible.)

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When this all began a year ago — my first article for TVO.org related to the new coronavirus was published on January 29, 2020 — I already had some basic knowledge of pandemics, simply because I am a nerd. These things had always interested me. So I'd read about the Spanish Flu and the great plagues of the Middle Ages. When I was 20, I had a minor brush with SARS and spent time self-isolating (another new term) in my apartment after I'd been potentially exposed after having picked up a relative from a medical appointment at a hospital that became a SARS hotspot. I am very much a generalist, by design — I write about whatever the news throws at me. But I at least had a bit of starting knowledge that has, I hope, served me well this last year.

But gosh. We've all had to learn a lot, haven't we?

It occurred to me this week that while we've all lauded front-line workers, particularly those in health-care settings, we also need to note the efforts of experts, across many relevant fields, who've been offering their insight, for free, to people like me since this pandemic began. While COVID-19 is first and foremost a medical crisis, it is so massive and wrenching an event that we've needed to become familiar with all sorts of other fields, some only tangentially related. A perfect example is the current scramble among Canadian journalists, policy-makers, and the broader public to understand vaccine production. Virtually no one had any reason to be particularly interested in this a year ago. Today, lives and our return to normal depend on dozens of steps in a process we're just starting to grasp. And each of those steps involves experts who know what's possible, what’s not, and what can become possible if we work at it.

The reason it occurred to me this week is that I found myself having conversations with four separate people I've leaned on during the pandemic. Two were medical professionals, in different fields. Another was an expert in logistics and supply chains. The fourth, a now-retired government official with knowledge of international trade treaties. I'm not naming these individuals here because all my chats were informal and off the record, but they all amounted, in essence, to me asking someone: "Okay, so I think I have this figured out — but do I? Am I missing something important?"

Three out of four times, I was on solid ground. I'd grasped the basics. Hey, 75 per cent ain't bad. But the fourth? I was way off. Total bust. And I was spared public embarrassment thanks to someone taking time out of their day, for free, to tell me how and why I was wrong. Worse than to my own ego, of course, would have been the damage to our public discourse I'd have inflicted on an already fatigued, data-drunk population. There's enough bad information and wild speculation out there already. It would have been mortifying to me and harmful to the public if I'd added to it.

Three months ago, I wrote here about the importance of local news. News is always important, but never more so than during a crisis. This week has brought grim news of yet more major cuts to newsrooms in Toronto and Montreal. There are now fewer reporters, producers, and editors doing the necessary work of educating the public than there were just days ago. That means more work for those left, and less time per story. There is simply no way to maintain consistent quality in the face of these relentless personnel losses.

The best way for those of us who are left to make sure we get it right and avoid making society collectively dumber is to count on those who know better, who have been there and done that, to help us understand the nuances of issues we've probably never thought of before. It's not a perfect process. We don't bat a thousand. But we do as well as we do thanks to the unpaid labour of a dizzying array of experts volunteering their time. They don't get the credit or the recognition they deserve.

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