Otago University covid-19 experts copping abuse from anti-vaxxers

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Professor Michael Baker
Professor Michael Baker ... faces regular attacks but he has not raised any concerns for his safety with his employer, the University of Otago. Image: RNZ/Luke Pilkinton-Ching​/University of Otago

By Hamish MacLean in Dunedin

University of Otago covid-19 experts are not immune to the increasingly vitriolic attacks dished out to scientists commenting on New Zealand’s pandemic response.

Among a litany of attacks University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker has endured over the course of the pandemic, at the start of this week a caller told him he had “a target on his back”.

Professor Baker said he kept the caller on the line for about 20 minutes and asked him what that meant “in real terms”.

The caller was an anti-vaxxer who was accusing Professor Baker of propaganda on behalf of pharmaceutical companies, telling him vaccines were dangerous, especially so for children.

The caller had half-baked information gleaned from various sources that did not really make sense, Professor Baker said.

“He had these slogans he was throwing at me, but when I asked him what he meant he didn’t really have any answers.”

This week it was revealed University of Auckland professors Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles have argued to the Employment Relations Authority their employer was not doing enough to protect them as they shared their expertise with the public.

Professor would call police
But Professor Baker said he had not raised any concerns for his safety with his employer, the University of Otago.

If anyone made a threat where he felt he or his family was unsafe he would not hesitate to involve the police.

The Wellington-based scientist received the occasional phone call where a caller delivered a stream of abuse and hung up, but Professor Baker said he was most likely to receive abuse in the form of emails, averaging a few attacks by email every day.

As an exercise, Professor Baker began classifying the forms of abuse he received into “five categories of insult”, he said.

There were the incoherent streams of abuse, which were easily dealt with, he said.

Some people had major grievances but did not know where to go, and contacted him to vent and, in some extremely sad cases, he would reply and express sorrow and sympathy.

There were anti-vax propagandists whose positions were not based on facts, which he ignored.

There were those with ideological stances who disapproved of the government’s overall strategy, who at times delved into conspiracy theories.

Personal attacks stream
Finally, the group he found the hardest to deal with came as personal attacks from a small stream of people who persistently contacted him, and tried to undermine his ability to comment.

“Talking about how you look, or how you appear – they’re obviously making quite a concerted effort to look at where you might feel a bit vulnerable,” he said.

The attacks had never made him question his role of speaking publicly about the pandemic response, Professor Baker said.

University of Otago virologist Jemma Geoghegan.
Dr Jemma Geoghegan … limited her media exposure. Image: University of Otago

University of Otago evolutionary virologist Dr Jemma Geoghegan said she, too, had not raised any concerns with her employer.

She said “no” to about 90 percent of media requests because the issues were not related to her field of expertise.

In limiting her media exposure, she had limited the number of people who wanted to harass her about her expertise, Dr Geoghegan said.

“I don’t generally speak about vaccines, so [that] abuse isn’t aimed at me,” the Dunedin scientist said.

‘Weirdly strong views’
However, she had published on covid-19 origins and people had “weirdly strong views about that”.

The issues dealt with by her Auckland counterparts were not surprising though and she had sympathy for them.

“This is happening all around the world,” Dr Geoghegan said.

“I’ve got international collaborators that … I think their mental health has suffered.

“Before covid, or at the start of covid, they were really prominent on Twitter and stuff like that, and now they’ve had to delete their accounts because of the amount of abuse they’ve got.”

Hamish MacLean is an Otago Daily Times journalist. This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ and this story first appeared in the Otago Daily Times

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