Devi Sridhar: pandemic vitriol ‘has taken its toll’

Academic who has become a lightning rod for criticism over her pandemic advice reflects on two years in the eye of the Covid storm

May 6, 2022
Devi Sridhar
Source: Getty

When Covid cases were rising in March 2020, Boris Johnson’s advice that the UK public should carry on as usual, albeit with prolonged handwashing, started to worry Devi Sridhar. “There weren’t that many voices questioning what was happening. We weren’t going into suppression but mitigation. I felt I needed to step up,” she recalled.

Having first sounded the alarm on Covid in mid-January, her challenges to Downing Street’s advice became more repeated and forceful. But while those interventions at a crucial point early in the pandemic are widely credited as changing policy and saving lives, no one has arguably faced a bigger backlash than the then University of Edinburgh professor of global public health. The 37-year-old Miami-born academic still receives a daily torrent of vitriol and criticism from lockdown sceptics, anti-vaxxers and, in particular, from those who accuse her of meddling in Scottish politics by allegedly providing cover for Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, whom she has advised during the pandemic.

The attacks are unusually personal, with Professor Sridhar regularly accused of “narcissism” and “egotism” over her TV appearances; in some cases, the threats have gone beyond mere Twitter trolling, although a suspicious package containing white powder turned out to be a hoax.

Did she ever envisage such toxicity when she entered the public debate over Covid? “Not at all – it was a shock,” said Professor Sridhar. “When you work in public health, we are always the good guys.

“Suddenly you go from that to being a villain, with people claiming you’ve caused destruction in some way. It was difficult at first, possibly because I couldn’t understand it.”

But the continual abuse and threats have “definitely taken a toll”, admitted Professor Sridhar, whose book Preventable: How a Pandemic Changed the World and How to Stop the Next One was published last month.

“It was hard taking flak, even though a lot of it was not really rational, with some people claiming that Covid patients didn’t exist, it was all a hoax and these were actors in a hospital,” she said. “At a certain point, people chose which experts they were going to listen to and then it is hard to convince people.”

The minefield of Scottish politics was a particular surprise. “I was totally clueless about this,” Professor Sridhar admitted. “I get on fine with Tory MPs in London, I’ve testified in front of Jeremy Hunt’s committee, and also with Lib Dems and Labour, and say the same thing, but in Scotland I was often criticised for being partisan. I work with all parties and offer the same advice.”

In fact, she did criticise the Scottish National Party (SNP) early in the pandemic, she said. “On 15 March, I did the Sunday Politics programme and said the advice was off. The difference [between Holyrood and Westminster] was that they listened and asked what aren’t we doing right and why…There was some reflection,” she said. “At different points, I have come out and said [critical] things but it hasn’t been picked up – if anything with Boris Johnson, I’ve had to rein myself in because so much was off, even now with Partygate.”

In Preventable, Professor Sridhar asks whether university experts will be quite so willing to enter the fray in the event of another pandemic. “In academia, it’s not rewarded to do public outreach as there is still a heavy focus on publications and grants,” she said. “Most of it is thankless because you’re being abused every time you go on TV and universities aren’t really supporting it either, preferring you write grant proposals and do research work.

“People are hesitant to do this work and I can understand why.”

Universities should think about including public outreach more explicitly in their promotion and hiring criteria, suggested Professor Sridhar. “Universities shouldn’t be creating cookie-cutter academics – some will be really good at teaching, or at communicating with students, while others are fantastic at raising money and writing grants, but there are others who are skilled at going out to the public or advising governments. We need to recognise this diversity because you cannot expect one person to do all of that, and do it well – we need a faculty that is diverse in terms of skill set and expertise.”

However, given the limited rewards for this work, plus the abuse faced by public-facing scholars, many will wonder “Is it worth it?” said Professor Sridhar, although she was hopeful that the toxicity of the Covid era will recede.

“Most people recognise it was a complex situation. There wasn’t a perfect path through, there were bad choices at each stage – anyone saying there was an easy way through isn’t being completely straight with the data or the truth of this situation.”


Print headline: Pandemic vitriol ‘has taken its toll’

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Reader's comments (6)

As a matter of interest, what happens to speakers who dissent from the approved Covid narrative, including scientists and doctors?
An excellent observation: “Universities shouldn’t be creating cookie-cutter academics …We need to recognise this diversity because you cannot expect one person to do all of that, and do it well – we need a faculty that is diverse in terms of skill set and expertise.” One reason why some university leadership and management is so lacking is that jumping through the research hoops to reach professorial status is very limited preparation for senior management. Much greater diversity of talent is needed.
True. Doing work with students is one that is completely underrated. As is work with charities/external parties. No wonder it is mainly those who are 'REF'able' who can climb the promotion ladder.
Nowbeing - we don't have an approved Covid narrative in academia - that is the point that Professor Sridhar makes above. We academics are supposed to 'speak truth to power'. It is difficult, it is problematic, and we often get left hanging by our institutions because they don't all grasp public engagement well. The abuse she suffered/suffers still is because some people just don't like having their views challenged, and when it comes to Covid, many such people are simply unwilling to accept reason.
MML, There’s no approved narrative? You must live in a different country than I. Universities have become echo chambers on a wide variety of subjects. Recent surveys confirm many academics now regularly self-censor.
If you don't self censor including in what you teach, you are toast. Sad but true.


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