Members of the pandemic commentariat are trying to reinvent themselves
Less than two days after all of the UK’s remaining Covid restrictions were lifted, the news cycle has already moved on. And with it, so have the commentators.
After two years spent tirelessly opining on all things Covid, it might be tempting to believe that the Covid commentators would take this opportunity for a well-earned rest. But as quickly as the headlines moved on to the situation in Ukraine, the Covid pundits followed suit. Deftly switching from discussions on herd immunity, variants, and vaccine efficacy, Twitter feeds were quickly filled with threads about the comparative nuclear capabilities of Russia and the US, demands to shut down Russia Today — Russia’s state owned media channel — coupled with a history lesson of Russia and complaints that the UK government was doing nothing.
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Much like Covid, the Ukraine crisis is complex. People depend on experts as much as news outlets for reliable information, but crucially, this should not serve as an invitation for the Covid commentariat to try and maintain their relevance by giving the perception of being an authority on issues they know very little about. Expertise is not transferrable; in fact, it is the very opposite — the whole point of it is the mastery of one’s own field. The last thing we need is a nutritionist giving us a history lesson on the Mongolian Empire.
Even when the pandemic first started, many so-called Covid experts did not actually have much relevant expertise. As information about an unknown virus spread on social media, new figures, often academics, surfaced whose pre-Covid discipline had very little to do with medicine or infectious disease epidemiology. But still, they used their platform on Twitter and embraced the role of Covid expert in order to strengthen their criticism of government actions, and in many cases to lobby for policy changes. In the process they grew their follower counts by hundreds of thousands, and landed multiple appearances in the media and on TV.
But worryingly, the actual area of their expertise was barely mentioned. So long as they were making a political point, all the rest seemed to fall by the wayside. Everyone is, of course, entitled to hold a personal view. These issues affect us all, and it is important not to fall into the trap of credentialism. But there is a difference between giving a personal opinion and creating an impression of expertise. Such views should be caveated with uncertainty, and readers made aware of limitations in knowledge. To see these same Covid experts who, after spending 2 years offering simplistic solutions to the pandemic, wrapped in political posturing, and devoid of nuance or hesitation, now move to giving similarly simplistic explanations and advice regarding Ukraine, is deeply concerning.
So keep an eye on Covid pundits, who have gained massive platforms during the pandemic, now trying to prolong their time in the spotlight by laying down the law on the crisis in Eastern Europe.