What you need to know:
The bombardment of information has led to confusion and conspiracy theories.
When Covid-19 emerged late last year, scientists scrambled to figure out the novel virus. Ever since, scientific understanding of the virus has been evolving, and so does the corresponding public health advice.
Despite the progress, mistakes and retractions, science is designed to challenge ideas through research, which leads us to a better understanding of the universe in which we exist.
The pandemic represents a massive global health crisis, and there are many experts in different countries focused on addressing the challenges posed by its emergence. The avalanche of findings has brought significant advances, including promising vaccines.
However, the bombardment of information has led to confusion and conspiracy theories. In March, as the first case was reported in Kenya, I passed through three international airports, washing my hands regularly or using alcohol sanitisers.
These messages were based on the theory that the virus was primarily transmitted by droplets lingering on surfaces.
At the time, healthy people did not need to wear masks, and public health officials reiterated that only the sick and their caregivers needed a mask. However, two weeks later, the science changed, and health officials recommended that people wear masks in public.
In Kenya, masks became mandatory. The government also imposed curfews and banned public events.
In the past week, a key point of confusion is the difference between “asymptomatic” (those who are infected but do not show symptoms) and “pre-symptomatic” (those who do not develop symptoms immediately but will go on to develop symptoms later).
Scientists are divided on whether asymptomatic patients are the main silent drivers of infections. Scientists must know how frequently people without symptoms transmit the virus because Covid-19 testing and quarantine measures are targeted at those with symptoms in most countries.
The international crisis requires large-scale behavioural change to slow down transmission. While pharmaceutical interventions are under way, the best path is to stop the virus at the community level, based on evidence.
Perhaps this is an opportunity to educate future scientists and the general public in engaging in the scientific process of evidence-based reasoning and action-oriented and socially responsible citizenship.
As we stumble to the end of 2020, researchers have discovered innovative solutions to limit the spread of this virus. The sheer speed with which scientists have produced vaccines is a major achievement for science and humanity.
So the backtracking and revised public edits in the media are not necessarily signs that science is flawed but are promising signs that researchers are generating new evidence, challenging the status quo, and debating the evidence as part of scientific methodology.
This necessity-driven, evidence-based reasoning, and critical thinking points towards an unprecedented need to invest and nurture a scientific environment critically important towards becoming "Covid-19 free" in the future.
Dr Rachel Kimani is a lecturer at the Aga Khan School of Nursing and Midwifery, East Africa. The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the University.