Who is leading Sweden’s coronavirus strategy? For much of the pandemic, the state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has been the public face of the government’s COVID-19 response. The Swedish government has consistently deferred to his advice (as well as the advice of the public health body he represents) to the extent that the former state epidemiologist, Johan Giesecke, has warned that Tegnell may have been given “too much power”. However, following months of relying on voluntary public measures, the government finally U-turned in November and introduced stricter restrictions on public gatherings. So, has it now stopped “following the science”?

In the Swedish capital, the healthcare system has reached breaking point. The “light touch” approach was clearly no longer sustainable. In December, Stockholm’s health authority announced that 99% of its intensive care beds were occupied, and called for help from the country’s military. Neighbouring countries, Finland and Norway, have offered to step in and provide support. Tegnell has admitted that resistance among the population to the virus through exposure and infection has not built as quickly as he had expected (though “herd immunity” was never the stated aim of the Swedish strategy).

“We are following the science” was also the mantra from the British government early in the pandemic, though it drew criticism from scientists for misrepresenting how scientific advice helps shape policy. Some scientists in the UK have even argued that ministers used them as “cover” when making difficult decisions, or that politicians misrepresented scientific advice to justify policy choices they favoured ideologically, and that this risks confusing the public and eroding trust in scientists.

Transparency is key. Politicians need to listen to scientific advice, though there should certainly be a recognition that science can change as more evidence is acquired. Scientists need to be given platforms to talk to the public and explain the evidence. However, ultimately, surely it is politicians (and not scientists) who need to be held accountable for the policy decisions they make, even in an extraordinary situation such as a pandemic?

What do our readers think? We had a comment from Proactive arguing that, ultimately, scientists need to advise but politicians need to decide. He argues that too many politicians have been “abdicating positive leadership roles during the COVID-19 pandemic and hiding behind ‘the science’.”

To get a response, we spoke to Sara Cerdas, a Portuguese medical doctor and politician who serves as a Member of the European Parliament with the Socialists & Democrats group. What would she say?

It’s a good question by Proactive, indeed. But I would say that this pandemic has given every citizen, even if they don’t have a scientific background, a sneak peak into how scientific progress is made. So, at scientific conferences you usually are there with your colleagues and are presenting the latest evidence, sometimes they clash and sometimes they converge, and you need a lot of evidence, and it’s like a puzzle; each person may have a piece and we need to put it all together. So, that’s why there are many, many differences of opinion but they converge into one.

In terms of politicians, they need to listen and pay attention to scientific advice. I come from a scientific background, and before I’m a politician I will always be a medical doctor, and will try to use the evidence that is out there and incorporate it into my role as a politician, because that’s how I believe I can add to the field.

There has been some hiding behind some scientific or technical decisions. For instance, Sweden’s response was not based on the science, but was based on the technical part. It was just one of the strategies. Now, they have said it hasn’t gone according to plan, as many others in the scientific community were saying, but that’s how it goes for science.

What we need is to give scientists a bigger spotlight and bigger stages [to communicate with the public]. For instance, in Portugal, I’ve seen so many political commentators analysing epidemiological curves, and I’m there watching the TV and am just shivering in my chair because I know so many colleagues – epidemiologists, medical doctors – that have the technical tools to analyse those tools that those political commentators do not have.

So, science is not something that just anyone can talk about, and we as politicians need to make sure who is conveying the message to the public, otherwise we are going to have a lot of misinformation arising, and so many people are already spreading inaccurate information about the pandemic. We need to convey information in the most assertive way possible, that is my message. I truly believe we need to give the stage to those that are most qualified to speak on different topics.

For another perspective, we put the same comment to Lidia Borrell-Damian, Secretary General of Science Europe, an association representing major public research organisations who fund or perform scientific research in Europe. What would she say?

Who should decide COVID-19 measures: scientists or politicians? Are politicians making decisions or “hiding behind” science? How can scientific advice best be incorporated into the policymaking process? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

Image Credits: WikiMedia (CC-BY-SA) Frankie Fouganthin; Portrait Credits: Cerdas – (cc) Circwork
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26 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Juan Francisco

    In my opinion the decision is always political, and they are also the ones who will be held accountable. Although it must be said that political marketing sometimes overlaps technical decisions and vice versa. Politicians in front of governments and in the opposition have mistakenly understood that the pandemic was a matter of communication. Sometimes they forgot that the health crisis also entailed a crisis of knowledge (they did not know how to deal with the situation effectively.) They hid themselves in technicians, and sometimes not the most qualified to advise with very unpopular measures. And on the other hand, the opposition understood that this was a good opportunity to overthrow the governments. We have lived through an exhausted rampant polarization to use each other’s technicians. Some governments and others have hidden themselves in Committees of Experts, which in some cases had, for example, 20% of doctors, the rest were politicians who worked in party commissions and who had not practiced for years (in the case of a regional government in Spain). Politicians used the pandemic to wear down “the other” and what the very independent technician has done to him has been to confirm his theories. There has also been a power struggle between technicians, especially those with more access to the media.

  2. avatar

    The advice of scientists and other experts in a particular field must weigh extremely heavily in the decision that, ultimately, must be taken by politicians. The problem is that it must be transparent which scientist or expert is being listened to. Are we listening to the economist, the epidemiologist or pollster, who also happens to have an academic degree during this pandemic? (although their advice need not be mutually exclusive).Advice on which policy choices are based must of course be public, so that the decision-making process is transparent.And, finally, Any politician who invokes ‘scientific research’ in a debate. must be able to indicate immediately on which research he bases his opinion. If the author of this study indicates that the results of the study do not agree with the conclusions drawn by the politician, the politician must, for punishment, write the following line a thousand times in all European languages: “I can’t use science for my cheap political games.” ;)

  3. avatar

    Politicians, unlike “experts” in any field are always held to account by the electorate.

  4. avatar

    If politicians listened to science, Europe would not have an Istanbul convention. And at the best of times, scientists are subject to the same frailties everyone else is: corruption, bias, compartmentalization. Treating scientists as though they are the oracle at Delphi is precisely what a fool would do.

  5. avatar

    If by scientists you also understand sociologists and crowd psychologists, then, scientists.

  6. avatar

    A committee of unbiased experts in all fields, not just medical, is required. Economics, statistics, social, health, and specialist experts with opposing opinions are required to advise is such cases. Nobody sponsored by vaccine investors, pharmaceutical companies or NGO’s should be allowed on this committee. Media should not fear-monger or promote one view or goal. Reporting needs to be unbiased again. Then the government can consider advice from all angles and all sources and make wise decisions. Instead of the hot mess we now have, the EU included.

  7. avatar

    Considering how ridiculously inapt the response of politicians to the climate crisis has been in the last THIRTY years, I’d say go with scientists all the way. Let me add that the problem is that yes politicians are held somewhat accountable for decisions .. within their election cycle. But who is held accountable for decisions that impact future generations? The climate crisis – like the rest of nature – is slowly unfolding. We need new mechanisms that also give a democratic voice to future generations.

  8. avatar

    Politicians have to listen to scientists who are independent from all lobbys !

  9. avatar

    How about politicians who are intelligent enough to know what they don’t know making informed decisions together with the scientists?

  10. avatar

    A collège of judges politicians and scientists.

  11. avatar

    Democracy is about competing for political power. Political power is supremely addictive. It is disastrous if COVID-19 is politicized as we have seen now.

  12. avatar

    It seems that France is considered not to admit Chinese vaccinates albeit they have been accepted by the World Health Organization. As 1.4 billion Chinese would all be receiving Chinese vaccines. Would like to know whether France consulted EU tourism trade before making such a ridiculous decision?

  13. avatar

    Just look at the international tourist expenditure of US$254.62 billion from the Chinese in 2019 and Chinese tourists contributed to more than 5% of the EU GDP, and around 1.39 billion doses of Chinese vaccine have been administered, would it be possible for economic recovery of EU without Chinese tourists?

  14. avatar

    Experts say you can believe anything that starts with ,,Experts say”. Because you know, experts say it.

  15. avatar

    Unfortunately, word “expert” was destroyed by media who presented anyone as ” experts”, from Founders of “cartoon” foundations and organizations to complete idiots with papers. The question is now how we can determine who is really an expert…

  16. avatar

    Scientists ! (black plague was not an ideology)

  17. avatar

    Lack of accountability? Peer review is closer to consensus building than the simple political majority. Plus science is a discovery process, it’s not the truth per say. Scientists are the first ones to doubt their results. Only politicians can take the decisions in the end, but I prefer that they do so based on the latest scientific evidence than on religious ideals or the latest populist fad.

  18. avatar

    Politicians playing medicine is a very dangerous and criminal game!!!

  19. avatar

    Scientists advising and politicians following

  20. avatar

    In EU, it is the demonstrators who have been dictating COVID-19 measures, not scientists nor responsible politicians. Just look at the demonstrators that have been attacking EU leaders who have been trying to save life even at the climax of the early outbreak last year. When people are dying, when the economy stagnant and when the vulnerable people have lost their job, house and everything, demonstrators are crying for freedom not to take the vaccine, freedom not to put on medical mask. They are actually killing vulnerable people particularly old and poor ones. Not only this, if economy failed to recover, very soon the working classes and middle classes would also be killed and their children would suffer from poverty. Stop using freedom and democracy to kill people and the country.

  21. avatar

    The decision of Covid-pass is both scientific and political because the decision is a collective decision of the political leaders basing on scientific grounds and medical, social and economic need for the well beings of all EU citizens. It is foreseen that all major economies would be adopting Covid-pass so that people can be protected from COVID-19 and economy can be recovered. In the face of public/collective interest, individuals have to surrender some freedom and liberty during a state of emergence.

  22. avatar

    Just look at all these biolab of the US, we can see COVID-19 is not only an issue of science but politics as well. When China has only 1 biolaboratory at Wuhan but the US has 25 around Russian, Iran, China and Africa, it is obviously clear that the US is the prime suspect on the spread of the COVID-19 as we have seen that Europe has been closely connected with the US via the NATO. EU outbreak of COVID-19 closely following the US. To save the people, politicians and scientists ought to join hand. Why China can open for WHO experts examination but not the US Fort Detrick? Without checking the prime suspect, how can we find out who is the murder killed millions of lives? https://twitter.com/mokumnews/status/967277180681105408/photo/1

  23. avatar

    3.34 million deceased and 206 million infected. The no. is still rising. It is time for EU to answer the call from China in building a Community of Common Health for Mankind. China has over 1.4 billion of people and the government has already escalated the protection of life to such a top level and still experiencing a very high level of economic recovery of 12% and 7.9% in Q1 and Q2. How many EU citizens should be dying so as to give sufficient strength for EU leaders to overcome political consideration to handle this humanitarian crisis? The pandemic is causing damage and death comparable to any war EU has experienced after World War II.

  24. avatar

    This is not a question. The reality is that science is to protect the human life. Politicians are to protect the survive of the nation. In the face of a pandemic, both scientists and politicians ought to put life before everything. It is not the time for the ignorant public to play politics and preventing political leaders to save life. Why the Chinese people can survive for thousand years and are still growing and prosper? It is because the Chinese cultural civilization is a history of protecting life, fighting against natural disasters. The Chinese emperors called themselves the Son of the Heaven. They are sent by the Heaven to rule and protect the people. Chinese dynastic history therefore shown a cyclic pattern. The fall of a dynasty usually comes with natural disasters with widespread famine, flooding and massive dying of people. This is not superstitious, it only shows that the longevity of a dynasty/government depending on how good the emperor(s) and governments can protect their people. This is the reason why the Chinese government has been talking and working all the time for the well beings of the people. So, people and leaders ought to think very carefully, in the face of a pandemic when millions of people are dying, individuals human rights or collective security ought to come first. Besides, no individual should be given the freedom to kill himself and costing also life of others. This is an abuse of individual rights. “Human Rights” does not equal to “individual rights”. Human refers to the collective not the individuals.

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