Covid-19: the disrupted daily life of epidemiologists


TESTIMONIALS – With the health crisis, biostatisticians, shadow professionals par excellence, have become public figures.

We have been online with Catherine Hill, epidemiologist at the Institut Gustave Roussy, for just a few minutes. “ Excuse me, the doorbell rings, it is the sound recordist of the interview just before who forgot his pole “. Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, scientists in general and modelers of the epidemic in particular, have been the darling of the media. Their statements make the headlines, their positions are commented on on social networks … A daily life 1000 leagues from their lives in the “world before”. Catherine Hill, a coquette in her seventies, was no stranger. This biostatistician is a leader in calculating the frequency of cancer. She also participated in the revelation of the Mediator scandal. But when the Covid epidemic occurred, this Stakhanovist, who had ended up retiring, became a mainstream figure. “ I had free time. I couldn’t let the epidemic of the century pass », She confides. Every evening, it updates its graphs which follow the curve of the Covid-19, criticizes the management of the government (“Predicting that the situation will improve in mid-April is to take your desires for reality”), writes in scientific journals and leads a crusade against bad indicators, including the “incidence rate”.

Martin Blachié, 35, a public health doctor, is one of these new stars of popular science. The company he runs, PH Expertise, does modeling for health agencies and industry. Its teams observe data on cancer, HIV, etc. “ Our know-how was close to what was needed for the Covid “. They therefore invest the niche. The man was a stranger. From now on, he is on all the CNews TV shows and has his napkin ring at Hanouna. The magazine website Gala maintains his biography in the “stars and gotha” category. He stood out for a clash with Professor Jean-François Toussaint and crossed swords against Florian Philippot at Morandini. A world far removed from mathematical modeling therefore. “ For a year, I have only been working. In addition to television, which is a voluntary activity, we must continue our usual work », He confides.

We don’t have the impression that science is audible, it’s more of the spectacle.

Catherine hill

Philippe Amouyel or Antoine Flahault, two epidemiologists professors in public health, are less used to shock formulas, but their faces appear almost every day in the living room of the French, on BFM TV or France 5. They do not hesitate to also point out the flaws in French strategy. Respectively based at the Lille University Hospital and the University of Geneva, they are crumbling under the demands of the media. Antoine Flahaut, who did his medical thesis on the mathematical modeling of influenza epidemics, reserves certain niches for them, “ never outside working hours “. Philippe Amouyel, originally specialized in diseases linked to aging, claims to speak in the media to move the lines. He makes stands in the JDD to request the wearing of a mask in closed places, to warn of the imminence of the second wave, or to request less strict confinement than the first. “ When we tried to make phone calls in Paris, nothing was happening, but in the media, we had an important response. “.

This sudden highlighting of scientists had its share of inconveniences. “ I received a lot of death threats, insults on social networks, last summer in particular when I said that Raoult was a charlatan, remembers Martin Blachié. Now I have cut everything. There are only people who react in the moment or micro-debates. I don’t have time for this », Continues the doctor. “ We receive messages that can be incredibly violent but it doesn’t matter », Says Antoine Flahault.

SEE ALSO – “I am an epidemiologist”: Didier Raoult answers his detractors that they cannot “tell him how we do research”

In real life, relations with the public are much calmer. “ At the market I’m known as the white wolf, underlines Catherine Hill. The merchant offers me vegetables and I am asked if I can vaccinate people She laughs. “ I belong to a Rotary club. Before each weekly meeting, I am asked to provide an update on the evolution of the epidemic, laughs Philippe Amouyel. “ Many people recognize me in the street, despite the mask. They ask me questions, underlines Martin Blachié. They appreciate the fact that I have rational speaking, not sensationalism. They want benchmarks, raw information “.

Science has therefore become a subject for the general public. “ What’s important is that we all get a little smarter about it “Enthuses Antoine Flahault. This professor of public health recognizes that “ the French media, which are often in search of controversy, have tried to understand the complexity of this crisis, have accepted that we can speak in technical terms “. Catherine Hill disagrees: “The questions of the moment are often completely irrelevant, she scolds. It is to take the problem by the small end of the telescope. Media noise is irrelevant. We do not have the impression that science is audible, it is spectacle. “

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