From top scientist to science media star during COVID-19 – South Africa's Salim Abdool Karim
CITATION: Joubert, M. 2020. From top scientist to science media star during COVID-19 – South Africa's Salim Abdool Karim. South African Journal of Science, 116(7/8):Art. #8450, doi:10.17159/sajs.2020/8450.
The original publication is available at https://www.sajs.co.za
Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned a handful of leading scientists into highly visible public figures. Anthony Fauci is the media star in the USA; Roberto Burioni in Italy; and in Sweden, it is Anders Tegnell. In Germany, Christian Drosten has become a household name, while Hugo Lopez-Gatell is highly visible in Mexico. In South Africa, we witnessed a remarkable surge in the public prominence of Professor Salim Abdool Karim following his appointment, in mid-April 2020, to lead a Ministerial Advisory Committee advising government on combating COVID-19. Data from Pear Africa, a South African media monitoring company, show that Abdool Karim featured in 545 print, broadcast and online media items during April 2020, compared with 20 in April 2019. Tracing Abdool Karim’s journey towards becoming a trusted public voice of science on COVID-19 reveals meaningful insights into the relationships between scientists, policymakers and the South African public. It also illustrates how Abdool Karim follows an international cultural trend whereby charismatic scientists approach celebrity status under certain conditions, giving them unique power in shaping public trust in science.1 For this case study, I explored the characteristics of Abdool Karim’s engagement with the South African public during the COVID-19 pandemic in the light of two key dimensions of quality in science communication, namely ‘visibility’ (including accessibility) and ‘credibility’ (encompassing expertise, trust and relevance). Both are needed for people to make decisions about costs, risks, benefits and ethics.2 Furthermore, I considered the effect of his communication skill (efficacy) and his willingness to engage (attitude).