The world is still reeling from the aftereffects of the pandemic, caused by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
Yet, humanity is far from giving in to this virus as there are many great minds working behind the scenes to mitigate the dangers. Among them is Malaysian Dr Vinod Balasubramaniam.
Vinod, a 41-year-old molecular virologist from Monash University Malaysia, recently received the prestigious UniteHealth 2023 Covid-19 Influencers Social Media award.
Unite Health is a community-focused organisation dedicated to advancing global health through the strategic use of social media.
This award is presented to individuals who used social media to relay important Covid-19 information to the public.
Given that misinformation was rife during the pandemic, Vinod’s contributions provided useful guidance in a time of great uncertainty.
Vinod was chosen out of 300 nominees for the “Understanding the Virus” category; he was also the only Malaysian to receive the honour.
FMT Lifestyle recently spoke with the Melaka-born Vinod about the award and why his work is important in this post-Covid world.
“As a molecular virologist, I’m interested in viruses, specifically RNA viruses. I study how they cause pandemics and how they infect their hosts.”
According to Vinod, a virus is a group of proteins which infects hosts for its own survival. “We scientists are trying to understand how it does that and how we can stop it.”
According to him, humans often think of themselves as lords of the world; but in truth, viruses can bring humanity to its knees with ease.
The award he received, said Vinod, was for his work in “bridging the gap between the scientific community and the public”.
During the pandemic, Vinod worked to assuage the fears of the public in both Malaysia and Australia, as well as encourage vaccine uptake in the two countries.
To be nominated in the “Understanding the Virus” category, “I had to explain to the public what the virus does, what type of virus it was, which hosts it infects and how we can better understand it”.
According to Vinod, he was quite nervous when he received word of his nomination. “The award’s huge! You have to be perfect in terms of relaying information. There’s no room for error!” he said, adding that viruses have intrigued him.
Vinod said one of the most alarming developments during the pandemic was the wave of misinformation which spread across social media.
He added that even the learned community is not immune to misinformation. “You’d be surprised at the sheer number of scientists and doctors who thought the pandemic wasn’t real!”
This is of great concern to him, he said, as future pandemics are inevitable. He cited the example of avian flu making the jump from animal to human hosts.
Other than misinformation, disinformation is also a danger. “For some reason, there is a well-coordinated group working to prevent the public from protecting itself.”
Disinformation pops up so quickly that it’s a game of whack-a-mole for Vinod. “When you try to debunk one lie, there’s already another ten waiting in line. That’s the fun of it though, isn’t it? To prove people wrong?”
He cited how people claimed the vaccines were deadly or ineffective, even though the data said otherwise.
Thus, he found it “exciting” whenever he had the opportunity to answer honest questions from the public. “It’s challenging, but it’s what scientists should do.”
Vinod acknowledged that certain quarters were bent on painting scientists as being in the pockets of certain industries. He himself received death threats and hate mail.
Even as a scientist, Vinod had to fight tooth and nail to convince his sceptical parents to be vaccinated. “Imagine those who don’t have a scientific background. It’s even harder for them.”
He also acknowledged certain people are never swayed by any amount of evidence and there’s little that can be done about it.
To fight prevalent disinformation, Vinod said a concentrated effort was needed from everybody. “Teachers, scientists, we need everybody to talk based on science, not propaganda.”
“The only way we can fight this misinformation is through data. And the job of scientists is to simplify all of this,” said Vinod. – FMT