SSM President letter December 2020
As the last month of 2020 ends, it was lovely to know that the days will start to get longer. I always feel it is a time of promise as the end of the shortening days draws nearer! In this extraordinary year, one real hope of better times for 2021 is the prospect of mass vaccination to protect people against Covid-19. It gives hope of some respite from the relentless workload of so many essential workers – the people working in public health, health care, social care, prisons, schools and universities to name just a few – who have continued to put themselves at risk to care for others. It gives hope that we can prevent more people experiencing the desperate sadness that so many have faced this year – of losing family or friends, of having friends and relatives ill in hospital or at home but not being able to be with them to offer care and comfort. It gives hope that we are nearer to the simple joy of sharing times important events and trivial ones with other people in big, bold real life, not just through computer screens and smartphones, and nearer to the simple human act of being able to hug or be close to someone in times of happiness or despair without having to see this as risky and alien. The announcements over the last month of vaccine development, discovery and testing are a real testament to the power of more collaborative science. They are also a reminder of the phenomenal achievements in reducing infectious disease burden, particularly over the past century. I’ve found it heartening to see the many social media posts celebrating the successes of other vaccination programmes (e.g., the many variations of posts like ‘Do you know anyone with polio? No? That’s because we’ve worked hard to immunise everyone’).
By contrast, it is an area which has also exemplified how social media can be used too to promote destructive misinformation (let’s not even talk about how destructive it might be for someone to use social media to undermine people’s faith in democracy through their inability to believe that they actually lost in a fair election in one of the planet’s most privileged countries!). In an excellent online presentation yesterday on ‘dark nudges and sludge in big alcohol’, Mark Petticrew reminded me again of the infamous quote from a tobacco industry memo in 1969 that “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy”. Misinformation has been rife throughout the pandemic – and responsible for may excess cases and needless loss of life – but so many of our colleagues in public health continue to work hard to promote more balanced information as the science about the scale and spread of the pandemic, and how best to manage it, grows. A big shout out to all of those people – you’ve been fantastic!
Our annual conference in September was our first to be online. A huge thank you is due again to everyone on the SSM Committee and Hg3 who pulled out all the stops and found the time for many extra meetings. The conference’s success is also down to the great contributions from members of the Society (and others we could welcome to the conference for the first time) – the people who attended, presented papers or posters, or posted questions and stimulated debate. We had a stellar line-up of people presenting our plenaries this year. Danny Dorling gave a masterful overview in his talk on ‘Constructing the Story of 2020 – myths, miasma, messaging and models – from Cholera to Covid-19’. Harry Rutter raised questions about the many challenges ahead and what we can do to facilitate positive change, in his talk entitled ” Build back better”: academia’s role in translating optimistic slogan to meaningful action post-Covid-19’. And we were reminded of the depressing reality of how the social determinants of inequality manifest themselves all too forcefully in the wake of Covid-19 in a superb panel discussion with talks from Michael Marmot, Michelle Kelly-Irving, Margaret Whitehead, Vittal Katikireddi and Gerry McCartney. Thank you to you all for your contributions.
As we move into 2021, it would be good to believe that after some of 2020’s tremendous collective efforts in so many walks of life (including public health), collaboration and cooperation might be valued over destructive and divisive competition. Collaboration in tackling climate change could not be more urgent, and we have to remain optimistic that the delayed COP26 in November 2021 (hopefully with some in-person events in the wonderful city of Glasgow) will begin real change.
I’d like to end by wishing everyone the chance for some downtime and fun in the festive season and all good wishes for 2021. As we listen to the complicated debates about how and whether people may get together over the Christmas period, it’s a good time to remind ourselves of multi-cultural diversity and the good grace with which so many people curtailed their celebrations of other cultural or religious festivals, as various restrictions or lockdowns affected their ability to mark these important events as they would have liked earlier in 2020.