On 26th March 2021, the Takshashila Institution hosted Anirban Mahapatra to discuss his new book “COVID-19: Separating Fact from Fiction”. He has a PhD in microbiology from Ohio State University and has been involved in science and scientific publishing for over two decades.
Shambhavi Naik, Research Head of Takshashila, anchored the event. The panelists included Madhura Lohia, alumni of Takshashila, Vinayak Jain, current student of GCPP, and Pranathi Rao, research intern at Takshashila. The event started with Shambhavi setting the context for the discussion. She spoke about the infodemic that came along with the COVID-19 pandemic and went on to introduce the book written by Anirban Mahapatra.
When asked about how to decide when the research project is completed and why did he decide to write the book, Anirban talked about two approaches. The first approach is where the science writers take their time to research through a whole lot of resources and then start writing. However, this approach does not fit well with the current situation of pandemic as there is no luxury of time. The second approach is where you start researching and writing simultaneously. He felt the time to write a book now was correct as enough time had passed since the start of the pandemic and enough concrete information had come out in the open.
The discussion steered towards the main theme of the book – how to separate fact from fiction. Anirban acknowledged that social media helped him understand what people are interested in. Writing a book allowed him to take a step back, dive in deeper, and look at the information objectively and verify it. If it would have been a news article, he would not have had the same luxury.
The conversation continued with questions coming in from the panelists. Upon being asked about the aspects that need to be considered while designing the vaccination process, especially in a country like India, Anirban spoke about vaccination, rather than vaccines, being one of the leys to slowing down the pandemic. Getting a vaccine to work is a scientific problem, manufacturing vaccines is an operational problem, getting a vaccine delivered is an economic problem. But getting people vaccinated requires understanding of social aspects. It needs a holistic approach. He spoke about the importance of engaging in dialogue with the general public, to quell their fears of vaccination.
When asked about how to deal with scientific information and how to effectively communicate it, Anirban explained how science works. We always keep discovering new information and ideas change over time. The public does not necessarily see it that way. They think they were supplied with wrong information. We have to look at who is the source of the information, how well established it is and if it fits with common sense. There is no black and white. The information will keep on changing as science makes more discoveries.
The discussion ended with Anirban’s three recommendations on preparedness for future pandemics. His implored the people to trust the science even if they are faced with new information every day, as that is how science works. The second recommendation was to remain optimistic and the last one was to utilise the time in between to build capacity and develop infrastructure to better address the public health emergencies.
You can watch a video below:
You can also find a mind map of the event: