OnFrontiers spoke with Dr. Sweta Chakraborthy, an expert in our network, about how her background in evidence-based communications skills can play a crucial role in responding effectively to the COVID-19 crisis by helping those who make decisions understand not just existing but also emerging risks.
As governments at all levels and companies scramble to make sense of the disease, guidelines to avoid further its spread, and how to function while largely working remotely – Dr. Chakraborty warned everyone should take into account “the ripple effects” of the pandemic.
Dr. Chakraborty’s expertise lies in the hybrid, intersectional areas of society’s largest problems like climate change, food insecurity, social conflicts, and pandemics like COVID-19.
A 2019-2020 Millennial Fellow for the Atlantic Council, Dr. Chakraborty also has experience as the U.S. representative for We Don’t Have Time – a social media platform focused on how to solve climate change, she hosts a podcast on climate change and national security, was the Associate Director for the Institute on Science for Global Policy, and has a range of private sector experience as well.
‘Nothing exists in a silo’ with COVID-19, so take a multidisciplinary approach
Dr. Chakraborty said while the pandemic itself is harmful to everyone, so are the aftershocks in terms of lost wages, healthcare costs, businesses shutting down, mental health, and potential environmental degradation as people turn to online ordering and shipping with increasing frequency.
She noted “you can look at examples of complex, interconnected risks of climate change, or a pandemic where a pathogen is food or airborne and find the same response time and again. People do not react in alignment to the reality of the risk. They consistently over or under react, and policies based on public reactions– as opposed to real risk–result in policymaking not entrenched in data, but in public perceptions.Understanding and anticipating real risks versus human behavioral responses is helpful and mandatory in preparing for a pandemic, because once a risk like an infectious disease emerges, any efforts to learn on the fly will give way to appeasing public fears.”
According to Dr. Chakraborty, COVID-19 is a classic case of “a real disconnect between the reality of a risk versus the perception, and now much of the world is playing catch up” in terms of diagnostic testing, policy and economic responses. By having policy, communication, fiscal, and operational plans in place, a lot of chaos in terms of public response could have been avoided.
Dr. Chakraborty noted she understood that the immediate response is to turn to global health experts and medical professionals at a time like this and respects them a great deal for what they are doing right now, but warned against relying too much on their expertise because it “is skewed towards just the primary impact.”
She cautioned that “now, all of a sudden, nothing exists in a silo,” the ripple effects like challenges of school closures for service workers, strains on retailers and the food service industry, and the like are in full effect and companies and organizations will have to prepare for how to operate in that state for at least the rest of 2020.
Dr. Chakraborty said risk scientists like herself can ask the big questions like “what is the pandemic and our response to it doing to society?”‘
Put people first’ for the best way to operate during and after this uncertain time
Understanding how people’s brains are wired is where Dr. Chakraborty comes in.
“We are not wired to hear about the ripple effects [of COVID-19] and all of that just yet. So the first line of defense is to protect your business and your business’ bottom line without sacrificing humanity, despite what we know is going to come – which is economic hardship, and a lot of jobs lost, and a lot of hard times going forward. People still need to know They are the center of the business,” she explained.
Putting people’s health and well-being ahead of anything else will allow for livelihoods to remain at least somewhat intact as we continue to weather this storm.
Focus on building capacities now
For Dr. Chakraborty, the social isolation recommended by public health officials is only part of the puzzle of solving this crisis. “We know people are getting sick and are going to continue getting sick. It’s out there, so we have to mobilize all the resources we can towards that,” she said, adding that hospitals will require far more resources and the power of public-private partnerships will likely have to play a role to address this immediate impact.