Norman Swan, Bill Bowtell and Raina MacIntyre frequently comment on COVID

Since the pandemic struck in early 2020, a small class of experts have become modern-day rock stars. The medical-industrial complex has quickly become the perfect foil to the under-resourced mainstream media, adding easy credibility to the constant stream of COVID-19 clickbait. The only problem with these ready-to-cook experts is that, as with all professions, not all experts are created equal. (The same, of course, can be said for pretty much any field, be it accountants, investors, editors, house painters or footballers.) 

That is not to say we should think less of the experts. If anything, years of study should (and often does) add credibility. The difference with COVID reporting is that the experts have largely become the story, many actively courting the media. This creates a perverse incentive — the small cadre of experts are motivated to be more controversial and hyperbolic, which gets even more media exposure, exacerbating the cycle of doom.

Let’s look a bit more closely at some members of this small pool of go-to experts who continue to shape how millions of Australians view COVID.

The granddaddy of COVID experts hasn’t actually practised as a health professional for almost four decades. Norman Swan, the ABC’s health guru, has been a radio producer (and briefly a Biggest Loser star) for most of his career. Swan, who has accumulated 118,000 Twitter followers and 2.6 million podcast listeners, is usually entertaining but not always accurate. Most famously, in March 2020 he warned Australia would soon record 80,000 daily infections, “14-20 days behind Italy” (Australia’s record was during Melbourne’s second wave when we hit 721). Swan was also accused of undermining the vaccination program in Australia when he suggested “we’d learn a lot by waiting” to roll out the Pfizer vaccine.

Bill Bowtell AO (26,000 followers), has emerged as another high-profile (and risk-averse) expert, largely due to his savvy media handling. During regular appearances on The ProjectToday, and in the Nine papers, Bowtell has been a staunch advocate of strict measures such as lockdowns. His profile has increased even more during NSW’s recent wave, becoming the “go-to” medical expert and an outspoken critic of Berejiklian’s “lockdown lite”.

Bowtell’s Twitter profile describes him as an “Adjunct Professor UNSW Strategic Health Policy Consultant especially related to global health and development”. But if you were thinking that meant Bowtell has accredited medical qualifications, you’d be wrong. While the media regularly refers to him as an infectious disease expert, Billy from marketing is nothing of the sort. In fact, his only academic qualification appears to be a political science and government degree obtained in 1975 — his professorship being an honorary one (adjunct professors are usually not employed).

Bowtell’s occupation is a consultant (while also being a Labor Party figure), whose crowning glory was helping design the controversial Grim Reaper HIV campaign in 1987 in his role as senior adviser to the then health minister. That infamous campaign was both praised and criticised for “unintentionally [demonising] the gay community”.  He’s also been the director of the HIV/AIDS Project at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and the national president of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations.

Like all of us, Bowtell is entitled to his opinion on COVID-related matters, but his infectious disease expertise lies in marketing and policy, not epidemiology, unlike real epidemiologists such as Greg Dore, Catherine Bennett or Peter Collignon, all of whom are reported far less regularly by mainstream outlets.

UNSW Professor Raina MacIntyre is another media favourite who heads the biosecurity program at the Kirby Institute. But MacIntyre’s views and modelling on COVID-19 have been consistently incorrect. In February 2020 she claimed that 400,000 Australians could die from COVID (this would have required a fatality rate 20 times greater than the world’s worst-hit regions) and that the northern beaches outbreak could lead to 3000 infections (it led to about 220). Last week it was suggested on the Global BioSecurity Twitter account (to which MacIntyre is affiliated) that Australians should “hold their breath indoors, even if not passing anyone, as they may have left their virus remains in the air”.

Professor Adrian Esterman of the University of South Australia and Professor Mike Toole of the Burnet Institute are two of the most commonly quoted COVID-zero advocates. Esterman’s understanding of effective reproduction rates have been criticised, and he encouraged a more cautious vaccine rollout earlier this year, in advice that does not appear to have aged well. Toole has long been an aggressive advocate for strict lockdowns, demanding NSW not allow spectators at the Sydney Test, claiming it was “just too high a risk”. The Test occurred in front of spectators and the outbreak was quickly crushed.

Meanwhile New Zealander Tony Blakely has been overtaken by other more hyperbolic commentators. Not to be left out, Blakely last week suggested the only way to enforce Sydney’s lockdown was to send in troops, just in case locking down housing commission residents wasn’t Handmaid’s Tale enough.

While Swan, Bowtell, MacIntyre and Toole are all absolutely entitled to their views, the mainstream media’s lazy reliance on a small number of experts (some of whom have little or no medical background) in their “general news” sections has been a critical factor in Australia continuing to maintain one of world’s strictest COVID-zero policies.

This may or may not be the correct policy decision. Maintaining near-zero COVID deaths significantly affects many Australians, in particular the poor. To fully understand all the implications, including youth depression and suicide, the significant impact on children’s education (especially underprivileged children) and blocking tens of thousands of genuine refugees from safely arriving in Australia, we need to hear from a plurality of voices, rather than a tiny cohort of experts.

What do you think? Are we hearing enough and from the right experts? Share your thoughts at [email protected], and include your full name if you’d like to be considered for publication.