While nurses and doctors treat patients on the front lines, epidemiologists and virologists who have spent careers in lecture halls and laboratories have become the most trusted sources of information in an era of deep uncertainty, diverging policy and raging disinformation.
After a long period of popular backlash against experts and expertise, which underpinned a sweep of political change and set off culture wars in much of the developed world, societies besieged by coronavirus isolation and desperate for facts are turning to these experts for answers, making them national heroes.
“During a crisis, heroes come to the forefront because many of our basic human needs are threatened, including our need for certainty, meaning and purpose, self-esteem, and sense of belonging with others,” said Elaine Kinsella, a psychology professor at the University of Limerick in Ireland who has researched the role of heroes in society.
“Heroes help to fulfill, at least in part, some of these basic human needs,” she added.
The scientist-heroes emerging from the coronavirus crisis rarely have the obvious charisma of political leaders, but they show deep expertise and, sometimes, compassion.
In Italy, a nation ravaged by the virus more than any other in the world so far, Dr. Massimo Galli, the director the infectious diseases department at Luigi Sacco University Hospital in Milan, swapped his lab coat for a suit and accepted he “would be overexposed in the media” in order to set things straight, he told one talk show.
In Greece, which has so far been spared a major outbreak, everyone tunes in when Prof. Sotirios Tsiodras, a slender-framed, gray-haired man, addresses the nation every day at 6 p.m.
His delivery is flat, and he relies heavily on his notes as he updates the country on the latest figures of those confirmed sick, hospitalized or deceased. Occasionally, he offers practical advice, like a solution of four teaspoons of bleach per liter of water can be sprayed on surfaces for disinfection.