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  • May 2, 2020
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Rahul: Hi Monica! How are you doing?

Monica: I’m doing absolutely great. Thanks! How about you? And how are you? Are you safe during this pandemic?

Rahul: Absolutely. I’m taking precautions. By the way, what’s new these days?

Monica: Well, well, well! As usual, I’m studying for my civil services examination which is lined up on May 31st.

Rahul: I know the date, but don’t you think it will be extended further due to the lockdown?

Monica: There are some really good chances of the examination getting postponed by at least a month. And they should, because the studies of the aspirants have been affected to a great extent. But due to no notifications by the UPSC about the postponing of the examination, we have to be all set for May 31 st only. How is the situation of the pandemic in your city?

Rahul: There are two cases here in my city. Both the cases are still active and both were tested positive this week itself. Since then, the administration has become very strict and people have also become very precautious. No idea what’s going to happen in the coming days. How is the situation over there in Delhi?

Monica: It is very bad, extremely bad. The positive cases are compounding rapidly. I think it will take another 1-2 months to bring the situation in total control in Delhi. Luckily, coronavirus is not as deadly as the Spanish flu of 1918. But still, it is taking many lives.

Rahul: Very true. In fact, I just feel tensed the moment I think about countries like the USA, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and others. We’re still in a way better condition than those, or at least seem to be. I know the testing rate in India is one of the lowest in the world.

Monica: Let’s just hope for the best. We need to support mankind by providing all the sort of help that we can provide while being precautious. The world economy is drowning drastically, and it will take years to recover from this state. I just hope that things get back to normal as soon as possible.

Rahul: I also hope the same. Alrighty, I gotta go. I’ll call you later, Monica! Go and do your studies and best of luck for your examination. Bye!

Monica: Thanks, Rahul! Have a good day! Bye!

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How to talk to your friends and classmates about covid-19 and school reopening, here are some tips for students to have conversations with their friends and classmates.

Two girls are washing their hands.

Actively listen

Offer support, be kind and respectful, educate your friends about facts and avoid the spread of misinformation, encourage them to follow the protective measures.

If you notice that your friends are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic and school reopening:

  • Show genuine interest and ask them, “Do you want to talk about your feelings and concerns?” or “How are you feeling about going back to school? ”
  • Listen attentively like turning your body to face your friend and waiting until they have finished speaking before you respond. Reflect on what your friend says by summarizing or restating it back to them in your own words and asking if you have understood well. Be careful not to give advice. Do not tell your friend what to do.
  • Validate their feelings: Tell your friend, “I can understand why you feel this way” or “It must be hard for you.”
  • Try to understand their point of view by putting yourself in their shoes and seeing things from their perspective. Think about how your friend feels rather than how you would feel.
  • Respond with respect by thanking your friend for sharing their feelings with you. That means they trust you. Do not laugh at them, make fun of them or talk about what they shared with peers unless they want you to

Sometimes, your friends may share information that indicates they might need help or more attention from an adult, such as that they are depressed or that they wish to harm themselves or someone else. It is important not to talk about your friends behind their backs, but talking to an adult if your friend needs help (even if they ask you not to) is sometimes necessary.

If you feel comfortable, you may also share a personal story of how you are feeling and overcoming the concerns and challenges. However, make sure not to shift the focus of the conversation, keeping your friend as the central part of it. If they aren’t ready to talk, don’t push them. You can tell them, “You don’t need to share your feelings with me if you don’t want to, but I am still happy to spend time with you and keep you company.” You can just sit beside them and reassure them that you will be there when they are ready to talk. It will make them feel that they aren’t alone and they will slowly begin to open up. 

Going back to school can be as exciting as it is worrying for some of your friends and classmates. They might feel less motivated to do activities they used to enjoy at school. It could be because of various factors. They may have lost someone they love or they may be overwhelmed with a huge amount of information including on social media, TV or other channels. Though it is important to stay up-to-date , over-consumption of information, especially those that have an impact on the way we feel, can take a toll on emotional and mental health well-being. You/they might have been exposed to rumours and false information that would have heightened their fears.

You can help them to strike a balance to keep themselves informed by looking for information using reliable sources such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as local health authorities in your country. You can share some of your own positive experiences on how to navigate the situation – maybe ‘doing a physical activity', ‘learning a new skill’ or ‘spend more time with the family'. You can invite them to do some fun activities together while maintaining a safe distance from each other. Instead of talking about who got sick and how to focus on who got well and recovered. Talk about how things are getting better with the introduction of the vaccines. Ask them to follow all preventive measures to stay safe from COVID-19. Encourage them and remind yourself to disconnect sometimes too. Your mind, just like your body needs time to rest to stay well.

Watching your friend experience the physical and emotional pain of bullying or cyberbullying can be heart-breaking. If your friend or their family member have been diagnosed with COVID-19, there is a possibility of your friend being bullied by other people. Sometimes, people who belong to a particular community are the victims of bullying, because of misinformation as some people look for someone to blame for the impact of COVID-19 in their lives. But bullying is harmful and will leave your friend feeling devalued, rejected and excluded.

COVID-19 can affect anyone at anytime, if proper preventive measures aren’t followed. If your friend is a victim of bullying, be kind and offer support. If your friend or classmate is bullying others – online or at school, be a positive role model, speak up when others are mistreated and question bullying behaviours. Remind them that comments made online still hurt people in the real world. You can prevent bullying by being inclusive, respectful and kind to your peers. You/your friend/your classmate does not have to face bullying alone. Educate yourself about schooling policies relating to in-person as well as cyberbullying.

Reporting bullying to your school is important. If you are uncomfortable reporting to  school officials, tell a trusted adult – parents, teachers or counsellors. Talk to your school teacher and explain how you/your friend feels about it. If you are reporting cyberbullying, keep a record of the date and time of the calls, e-mails or texts and don’t delete any messages you receive.

Knowing the facts will protect not only you but also your friends and classmates. Be aware of the fake information about COVID-19 circulating on social media that is feeding fear. Some of your friends might be returning to school after hearing false information about COVID-19. If they tend to share inaccurate or false information, don’t criticize them publicly. Talk to them in private and explain the consequences of misinformation. You can ask them about their source. If it is an unreliable source, encourage them to find information about COVID-19 from reliable sources such as UNICEF and WHO, and health authorities in your country. Explain to them that misinformation spreads panic and may result in additional stress and anxiety for people. By staying informed about the situation and following public safety and health measures, you can protect yourself as well as your friends and classmates.

Encourage your friends to stick to the rules of COVID-19 at school as well as outside. Help them understand that following safety and protective measures will help them and their loved ones stay safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

  • When engaging in school activities such as playing together or walking in the hallways, encourage them to maintain a safe distance. You can stretch your arms to have an idea of what a safe distance is.
  • Talk about hand hygiene, which includes washing your hands for a minimum of 40 seconds with water and soap or using an alcohol-based hand rub for at least 20 seconds.
  • If your friends find it uncomfortable to wear a mask, show them how to wear the mask correctly - covering the mouth, nose, and chin. Explain that masks act as a barrier to prevent respiratory droplets – when a person with COVID-19 coughs, speaks or sneezes – from reaching us.
  • If a vaccine is available to your friends, encourage them to get vaccinated. You can emphasize that vaccines go through rigorous processes to ensure they are safe and effective.
  • Be a role model of positive behaviours and encourage them to follow your school and community's safety and health guidelines.

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Tips on writing about COVID-19

Susan Johnston Taylor

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dialogue writing on covid 19

As readers cope with new realities in response to COVID-19, providing them with clear and accurate information is more important than ever. AP Stylebook held a Twitter chat on March 23 to share style tips on writing about the pandemic, and other experts like Mignon Fogarty of Grammar Girl and Roy Peter Clark of Poynter have shared their own tips. 

Savvy reporters use many of these strategies already, but it’s a worth a refresher, especially when they’re writing under tight deadlines or with little sleep. Here’s an overview of their advice with links to additional information. 

Use punctuation 

Many people feel overwhelmed right now, so the last thing they need is a series of long, complex sentences, especially when that information is crucial to public safety. “Think of the period as a stop sign,” writes Clark in his  recent article for Poynter  (worth a read in its entirety). “The more stop signs, the slower the pace, which is good if you are trying to make something clear.” 

Clark also suggests keeping the subject and verb together near the beginning of the sentence, as overly complex sentences can confuse readers. 

Avoid unfamiliar acronyms 

Readers may not know that  PPE stands for personal protective equipment  or that  WHO stands for the World Health Organization , so remember to write out the full name on first reference. The AP Stylebook says WHO or the WHO are both acceptable on second reference.  

Choose correct terms 

Coronavirus is technically a family of viruses, but in the current context, it clearly references a specific virus.  Coronavirus and COVID-19  are both correct, according to Fogarty and other sources (never use  geographic labels  when referencing the name of the virus). 

A pandemic is more serious than an epidemic, and the WHO has declared  COVID-19 a pandemic , so pandemic is correct. No need to say “global pandemic” as pandemic means the outbreak has spread to several countries or continents. 

Merriam-Webster defines some  terms recently added to the dictionary  such as socially distance. 

Know when to hyphenate

When you’re using to-go as an adjective (as in “we placed a to-go-order”), it should be hyphenated, according to Fogarty. However, AP Stylebook says  no hyphen  in telecommute or videoconference. Ditto on  N95 masks . Read  AP Stylebook’s coronavirus topical guide  for more guidance.  

UPDATE: The Canadian Association of Journalists published a list of tips and best practices including safety precautions and tools for working remotely.

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Engaging in Ethical Dialogue About the COVID-19 Pandemic

For Dr. Luciana Garbayo, assistant professor of philosophy and medical education, the COVID-19 pandemic is more than a public health crisis — it’s an opportunity to engage in an ethical dialogue about public health with the community. As a professor with a joint appointment in the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Medicine, she is well-versed in the interweaving of the two disciplines.

When it comes to the ethical debate surrounding mask and vaccine mandates, Dr. Garbayo finds similarities in other public health requirements, such as the notion that we must all follow the rules of the road while driving. In this example, the driver’s positive liberty to seek resources to improve the odds of surviving traffic accidents — choosing to wear a seatbelt as a safety device — supports public safety for oneself and everyone. To drive without a seat belt, while enhancing one’s negative liberty not to be constrained, does not improve safety neither for the driver, nor for the public. It is in every driver’s self-interest to use a seatbelt as well as in the community’s best interest.

“It’s not about punishment as much as it’s about understanding the value that you’re producing with your actions,” says Dr. Garbayo. “If we reflect a little, we can feel comforted that we are doing good by learning to navigate in ways that protect ourselves and others.”

Alongside her work at UCF, Dr. Garbayo serves on the advisory board of the Florida Bioethics Network. This network of experts housed in the University of Miami provides leadership within the bioethical and medicine communities, both to educators and the public. This fall, the network crafted a Statement on COVID-19 Duties , which the UCF Department of Philosophy has voted to endorse.

In addition to recognizing that wearing masks and obtaining vaccinations are moral obligations in the fight against COVID-19, the statement highlights the importance of community debate, stating that such debate over public health goals, options and the balancing of rights and privileges will build understanding and trust in the public health mission.

“Ethics is about engaging authentically in constructive conversations on what we value, and how we should recognize each other in our community,” explains Dr. Garbayo. “It’s really time for people to come together. We need this engagement so that we can avoid false moral equivalencies regarding our understanding of the distribution of burdens and harms. Further, we can recognize the necessary protections and support for everybody’s freedoms within the challenging context of a pandemic.”

The Florida Bioethics Network’s statement also highlights the need for intentional outreach to marginalized and vulnerable communities who may have less access to — or greater hesitancy toward — testing programs and vaccines.

“The real issue is health equity, in the sense of making sure that everybody has access [to the vaccine],” says Dr. Garbayo. “We need more expertise on reaching people and providing them the resources for their positive liberties to be enhanced.”

All in all, Dr. Garbayo is hopeful that continued dialogue around the ethics of mask and vaccine mandates will have a positive impact on public health, encouraging us come together to fight the pandemic in the way most aligned with our ethical standards rather than sowing further discord.

“We have to recognize the public sphere and engage,” explains Dr. Garbayo. “It’s part of our civic duty to enter in a dialogue and expose the reasons and justifications [behind mask and vaccine mandates]. It’s about engaging positively and constructively with the community. It’s okay to disagree; people shouldn’t feel bad. They should just try to get informed on the resources available for everyone’s protection under a pandemic.”

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dialogue writing on covid 19

Notes from The Conversation UK

A conversation about COVID-19 : how should we tackle its long-term social impacts?

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In 2021 the reverberations of the COVID-19 pandemic are still being acutely felt. Policymakers have been forced to battle on numerous fronts: containing the virus while trying to mitigate the worst of its social and economic impacts. The mass furloughing of employees and the closure of schools are just two of the policies we’ve seen that would have been hard to imagine at the start of 2020, when news of COVID-19 was first emerging.

It’s clear there are longer-term impacts that will play out over the coming months and for years – some of which may not even have fully emerged yet. Decision-makers in all UK nations must draw on the latest research, knowledge and evidence from across the globe if they are to find the most appropriate solutions to such complex and fast-moving societal challenges.

In response to this need, The Conversation has joined a collaboration of universities from across the UK and beyond to establish the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO). As part of its mission, we will be hosting a series of webinars that bring together academics, policymakers and wider thinkers to discuss how best to tackle the lasting impacts in areas such as mental health and wellbeing, education, online life, housing and care, with particular emphasis on the communities who have been hardest hit by COVID-19.

dialogue writing on covid 19

The first in this series of webinars – taking place at 2pm BST on March 30 2021 – will kick off by asking: what are the key social impacts of the pandemic, and how should we begin to address them? Jo Adetunji, Managing Editor of The Conversation, will chair the event. She will be joined by:

Sir Geoff Mulgan , IPPO project lead and Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at UCL;

Hetan Shah , Chief Executive of the British Academy; and

Deirdre Heenan , Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University.

The webinar will be free to watch directly via Facebook , YouTube and on Twitter . No registration is needed.

IPPO was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in response to COVID-19, to develop a knowledge system that is quick and responsive while also grounded in the latest and most robust evidence; globally informed but locally relevant. That means having plenty of conversations, listening hard to what decision-makers are grappling with, and bringing the providers of knowledge together with the users. To find out more and get involved with this groundbreaking project, get in touch here .

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  • Published: 28 October 2021

Discursive structures and power relations in Covid-19 knowledge production

  • Mario Bisiada   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-3145-1512 1  

Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume  8 , Article number:  248 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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This article critically examines the discourse around the Covid-19 pandemic to investigate the widespread polarisation evident in social media debates. The model of epidemic psychology holds that initial adverse reactions to a new disease spread through linguistic interaction. The main argument is that the mediation of the pandemic through social media has fomented the effects of epidemic psychology in the reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic by providing continued access to commentary and linguistic interaction. This social interaction in the absence of any knowledge on the new disease can be seen as a discourse of knowledge production, conducted largely on social media. This view, coupled with a critical approach to the power relations inherent in all processes of knowledge production, provides an approach to understanding the dynamics of polarisation, which is, arguably, issue-related and not along common ideological lines of left and right. The paper critiques two discursive structures of exclusion, the terms science and conspiracy theory , which have characterised the knowledge production discourse of the Covid-19 pandemic on social media. As strategies of dialogic contraction, they are based on a hegemonic view of knowledge production and on the simplistic assumption of an emancipated position outside ideology. Such an approach, though well-intentioned, may ultimately undermine social movements of knowledge production and thus threaten the very values it aims to protect. Instead, the paper proposes a Foucauldian approach that problematises truth claims and scientificity as always ideological and that is aware of power as inherent to all knowledge production.

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The first truly global, digitally mediated event

The Covid-19 pandemic is the first truly global event:

Not the Black Plague, not the transatlantic slave trade nor the two World Wars, not the 9/11 terrorist attacks have affected everyone, on every continent, as instantly and intimately and acutely as the spread of coronavirus, uniting us as we fear and think and hope about the same thing. (Badhken, 2020 )

While other events of historical magnitude had a global impact, they “were not experienced by the entire world at the same time” (Milanović, 2020 )—though this experience takes a different form for each of us, in terms of both our personal reaction and that of the country we live in. What unites these personal experiences is that they have been largely digital because, apart from being the first truly global event, it is also “the first epidemic in history in which people around the world have been collectively expressing their thoughts and concerns on social media” (Aiello et al., 2021 , p. 1). So our first global event is also the one “where we never met face-to-face in real-time with other people who lived through it” (Milanović, 2020 ).

Social media turned into the prime channel of the public sphere in quarantined societies, and a rigid and noxious polarisation evidently dominates the discourse (European Court of Human Rights, 2021 ; Yang, 2021 ). The question of why a crisis that should unite us in our communal struggle against a virus has produced such a divided society has put the spotlight on social media, which are still commonly assumed to be geared to create polarisation. The banning of @realdonaldtrump from Twitter may be read by future media scholars as to the beginning of an era of control of social media, as the end of Silicon Valley companies’ innocence as mediators of discourse. Since the global communities’ engagement in a fight against information disorder may produce other bans and regulations of free speech on public networks, the discussion of the role of social media as a public sphere will take important turns in the coming years.

In Rosenberg’s ( 1989 , p. 2) terms, as particular societies construct their characteristic responses following dramaturgic forms, epidemics are extraordinary opportunities to gain an “understanding of the relationship among ideology, social structure, and the construction of particular selves”. To understand “our contemporary reaction to a traditional stimulus”, we must distinguish between what is unique and what seems to be universal to pandemic responses (Rosenberg, 1989 , p. 2). This article tries to take the first step towards this goal through a critical approach to the discourse on the Covid-19 pandemic. An aspect unique to this pandemic is that it has been mediated primarily by social media. How this has shaped the response will be subject to extensive study in years to come, and the large amount of language data this has produced will be of great interest to social media discourse analysts. I propose that the mediating role of social media has provided the opportunity to approach the pandemic through the mode of knowledge production practice that is already exhibited by social movements. Contests over this knowledge production, however, led to a polarisation that cannot be explained comprehensively by common partisan affiliations but that should be understood to be interpretative, that is, predominantly issue-related. I argue that this polarisation has caused, and is caused by, among other things, discursive structures of exclusion, specifically through the hegemonic use of terms such as conspiracy theories and science . The following section will begin this argument by introducing the model of epidemic psychology that I adopt to understand our reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Epidemic psychology and the virtual public sphere

Strong ( 1990 ) proposes the “epidemic psychology” model to describe the early reaction to new fatal diseases. He comments on the “striking problems that large, fatal epidemics seem to present to social order; on the waves of fear, panic, stigma, moralising, and calls to action that seem to characterise the immediate reaction” and the “extraordinary emotional maelstrom which seems, at least for a time, to be beyond anyone’s immediate control” (Strong, 1990 , p. 249), descriptions that fit our experience in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic quite well. Strong sees the capacity of language to enable coordinated action among large groups of people, our “shared intentionality” (Tomasello, 2008 , p. 343), as the key factor in epidemic psychology, making human societies “complex and, though elaborately organised, still potentially subject to fundamental change, simultaneously massively ordered and extraordinarily fragile” (Strong, 1990 , p. 256).

Most social action is based on routine: Strong ( 1990 , p. 257) cites Alfred Schütz’s idea that everyday life is “a matter neither of rationality nor irrationality, but of routine”. Similarly, Berger and Luckmann ( 1966 , p. 172) have argued that “the most important vehicle of reality-maintenance is casual conversation”, which “can afford to be casual precisely because it refers to the routines of a taken-for-granted world. The loss of casualness signals a break in the routines and, at least potentially, a threat to the taken-for-granted reality” (Berger and Luckmann, 1966 , p. 172). Such a threat to routine can lead to “epidemic psychology in which contagious waves of panic rip unpredictably through both individuals and the body politic, disrupting all manner of everyday practices, undermining faith in conventional authority” (Strong, 1990 , p. 257). In sum,

the human origin of epidemic psychology lies not so much in our unruly passions as in the threat of epidemic disease to our everyday assumptions, in the potential fragility of human social structure and interaction, and in the huge diversity and elaboration of human thought, morality and technology; based as all of these are upon words rather than genes. (Strong, 1990 , p. 258).

With language at the heart of epidemic psychology, the threshold at which epidemic psychology sets in may be lower in the digital age due to greater connectedness and thus exposure to language and conversation. The study of language use on social media is thus fundamental to understanding the social processes and transformations that will result from the Covid-19 pandemic. The Internet and social media are by now fundamentally important for all types of linguistic acts including casual conversation and coordinated social action. We produce and receive more language on a daily basis than ever (McCullock, 2019 , p. 2). In Foucauldian terms, social media provides the environment of commentary that keep alive a large amount of discourses which would otherwise disappear (Foucault, 1981 , pp. 56–57), thus creating the impression that particular knowledges are established. If we consider social media “important engines of context collapse, rather than enablers of ideological segregation” (Bruns, 2019 , p. 99), it should come as no surprise that the symptoms of epidemic psychology described by Strong ( 1990 ) set in so quickly and transversally in our societies (see, e.g. Esses and Hamilton, 2021 ; Aiello et al., 2021 ).

Social media use has increased vastly during the Covid-19 pandemic (Nguyen et al., 2020 ), and it is the connectedness through social media that makes this pandemic unlike any other (Aiello et al., 2021 ; Madrigal, 2020 ; Tsao et al., 2021 ). The possibility to experience it in a socially distanced way is afforded to us only by our digitalised world. As Harari ( 2021 ) observes, “[i]n 1918, […] if you ordered the entire population of a country to stay at home for several weeks, it would have resulted in economic ruin, social breakdown and mass starvation. In contrast, in 2020, […] automation and the Internet made extended lockdowns viable, at least in developed countries”. How viable they are in terms of long-term effects remains to be seen, and, as Harari ( 2021 ) rightfully notes, even this digital world could not function without “the crucial role that many low-paid professions play in maintaining human civilisation: nurses, sanitation workers, truck drivers, cashiers, delivery people”. Given this fundamental importance of digital access, the #StayHome narratives of lockdown life have been particularly developed-world, digitalised, middle class, childless narratives. But the key point is that “after 2020, we know that life can go on even when an entire country is in physical lockdown” (Harari, 2021 ).

How will this new importance of social media affect society? Whether virtual public spaces also constitute a virtual public sphere has long been discussed (for an overview, see Bruns and Highfield, 2016 ). While using social media empowers users by broadcasting their opinions more widely, “the same anonymity and absence of face-to-face interaction that expands our freedom of expression online keeps us from assessing the impact and social value of our words” (Papacharissi, 2002 , p. 16). In fact, this sense of empowerment may misrepresent the true impact of our opinions (Papacharissi, 2002 , p. 17) and also of those held by others: Because a few vocal users can create a lot of activity, browsing social media may give us a distorted view of society, making it appear more polarised than it actually is.

A case in point is the (now deleted) Twitter thread that made Eric Feigl-Ding famous: He summarised a paper about the new coronavirus with the words “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD—the new coronavirus is a 3.8!!!” and called this infectiousness “thermonuclear pandemic level bad” (24 January 2020). In a response thread on Twitter, science writer Ferris Jabr shows that Feigl-Ding’s thread “missed essential context and contains numerous errors” and argues that his “claim that ‘we are now faced with the most virulent virus epidemic the world has ever seen’ and that the new coronavirus is 8x as infectious as SARS is completely untrue” ( https://twitter.com/ferrisjabr/status/1220963553911271424 ). Feigl-Ding’s viral thread thus

exemplified a deep problem on Twitter: The most extreme statements can be far more amplified than more measured messages. In the information sphere, while public-health researchers are doing their best to distribute scientific evidence, viral Twitter threads, context-free videos, and even conspiracy theories are reaching far more people. (Madrigal, 2020 )

Some argue, however, that it’s exactly this recognition of constant evolution that should inform modern science, that Feigl-Ding has just understood how social media work and “committed the unpardonable sin of failing to act on Twitter like enough of a scientist—you know, terrified of getting something wrong, because science never does ” (Science+Story, 2020 ). As social media come under increasing pressure through debates over misinformation, one task the pandemic sets us is to work towards a virtual public sphere that goes beyond the imagined communities (Anderson, 1983 ) or virtual spheres “consist[ing] of several spheres of counterpublics that have been excluded from mainstream political discourse, yet employ virtual communication to restructure the mainstream that ousted them” (Papacharissi, 2002 , p. 21).

Most theorisations on the virtual public sphere consider it in conjunction with the non-virtual sphere. The new situation we face now is the temporary quasi-disappearance of physical interactions. As I have argued in this section, while epidemic psychology had been constrained in previous pandemics by the sheer absence of contact, it is now able to continue unchecked, simply because a lockdown no longer keeps us from conversing with the world. The public sphere has been forcibly moved into the virtual space, for a short yet decisive amount of time: Public shaming of “irresponsible” people, insults (“Covidiot”), dubious model predictions and all the other effects of epidemic psychology could be observed. This, as I argue in the following section, has made the Covid-19 pandemic a phenomenon of communal knowledge production practice.

The Covid-19 pandemic as process of knowledge production

The Covid-19 pandemic is a unique phenomenon of knowledge production practice in the history of humanity because the phenomena of epidemic psychology described by Strong ( 1990 ) are for the first time mediated by a global network, that is, social media. The knowledge production in the Covid-19 pandemic resembles, in an accelerated form, that of climate change. Our first global event also gave us the opportunity to learn together, in real time, across the globe. Social media turn not only politics from a closed space into “a conversation that can be joined by outsiders” (Ausserhofer and Maireder, 2013 , p. 306), but also science, by way of knowledge production practices. There has long been a discussion in the philosophy of science on how knowledge gets subsumed into “scientism”, defined as “the conviction that we can no longer understand science as one form of possible knowledge, but rather must identify knowledge with science” (Habermas, 1972 , p. 4). The Covid-19 pandemic has placed science along with its hegemonies in the spotlight of society, and it is thus informative to reflect on the relation between science and knowledge.

As a response to public fear, the Covid-19 pandemic has followed the model of epidemic psychology in generating an “exceptionally volatile intellectual state” (Strong, 1990 , p. 254), as little is known about the new disease (Davey Smith et al., 2020 ) and there was uncertainty about whether “a new disease or a new outbreak is trivial or whether it is really something enormously important”, leading to “collective disorientation” (Strong, 1990 , p. 254). This volatile intellectual state and disorientation have created discourses of knowledge production (Casas-Cortés et al., 2008 ; Della Porta and Pavan, 2017 ; Pavan and Felicetti, 2019 ), defined as “practices through which local and highly personal experiences, rationalities, and competences get connected and coordinated within shared cognitive systems which, in turn, provide movements and their supporters with a common orientation for making claims and acting collectively” (Pavan and Felicetti, 2019 , p. 3).

Such practices create what Foucault ( 1980 ) calls local, subjugated knowledges, defined as an “autonomous, non-centralised kind of theoretical production, one that is to say whose validity is not dependent on the approval of the established regimes of thought” (Foucault, 1980 , p. 81). While such theoretical production consists of “local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges”, it does not constitute a right to ignorance or non-knowledge: it is opposed “not to the contents, methods or concepts of a science, but to the effects of the centralising powers which are linked to the institution and functioning of an organised scientific discourse” (Foucault, 1980 , p. 84). More recently, Fischer ( 2000 ) has shown how local contextual knowledge by citizens can help solve complex social and environmental problems. One example of these from the current pandemic are mutual aid groups (Engler, 2020 ; Mahanty and Phillipps, 2020 ; Sitrin and Colectiva Sembrar, 2020 ). However, the often centralising, heavy-handed or even authoritarian responses of governments, coupled with blanket policies that reflected little trust in the intelligence or autonomy of its citizens, hindered such knowledge production movements. Citizens were delegated to a passive role while a selected group of experts led the response, which mirrors the dynamics experienced by environmental movements (Fischer, 2000 , pp. 92–93).

A ready response to this volatile intellectual state tends to be that educated citizens should trust in science and condemn those who believe conspiracy theories, who spread fake news, who usher in an era of post-truth. Such a response, however, is often undergirded by a simplistic understanding of ideology, by the idea that we can and must somehow combat ideology and promote scientific truth through critical scrutiny of language and discourse in the media. Foucault criticised the usefulness of the notion of ideology for the fact that it “always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth” (Foucault, 1980 , p. 180). Rather than exploring a knowable reality, scientific enquiry has been described as constructive practice, that is, “oriented toward ‘making things work’ successfully and embedded in a reality which is highly artificial and essentially self-created” (Knorr-Cetina, 1977 , p. 670). In other words, assuming some kind of “false consciousness” within ideology presupposes the existence of a “consciousness which is not false (the position of critique)” (Mills, 2004 , p. 29), but such a position does not exist: “All knowledge is determined by a combination of social, institutional and discursive pressures” (Mills, 2004 , p. 30).

The dominating theoretical approaches to critical discourse studies hold that, through an awareness of linguistic/ideological oppression based on neo-Marxist or rationalist analysis, people are empowered to bring about social change and thus achieve emancipation (Hart and Cap, 2014 , p. 2). While this is a useful approach to studying language and social change, Pennycook ( 2001 , pp. 36–41) criticises such “emancipatory modernist” approaches as potentially patronising and argues that they lack the means to respond to the awareness of ideological oppression. Emancipatory modernist approaches to discourse are often grounded in a simplistic view of ideology juxtaposed with some “knowable reality” and hold the problematic notion that “scientific knowledge of reality can help us escape from the falsity of ideology” (Pennycook, 2001 , p. 41), a rationale that is itself often used by populist agitators (Bruns, 2019 , p. 114). Messianic attempts to help people see the light often fail, overlooking that many discourse practices aim to “explore others’ reaction to one’s identity and have it confirmed in interactions, including hostile reactions that confirm one’s status as a critical outsider” (Krämer, 2017 , p. 1302), thus cementing the very status one seeks to challenge into an emancipated position of its own. When studying epidemic psychology and the uncertain intellectual state it produces, it is thus more important than ever to remember that all language is political (Gee, 2011 , p. 10), all knowledge production is ideological and there is no truth or knowledge outside ideology (Pennycook, 2001 , p. 89).

As is the case with climate action, science’s indeterminacy, its raising more questions than it could answer, has led to its politicisation (Fischer, 2000 , p. 95). My argument in this section has been that, in the volatile intellectual state the Covid-19 pandemic has caused, the hegemonies of knowledge production, while always existing below the surface, have been made exceptionally visible. The restlessness of hypermediativity, fuelled by a constant generation and availability of data, allowed everyone to conduct “fact-based” statistical analyses and share them, around the clock. The fast exchange through social media and the way it empowers users to broadcast opinions and knowledge to wide audiences have caused a politicisation and polarisation of scientific debates (Clarke, 2020 ; Bhopal and Munro, 2021 ). In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic as a process of knowledge production, it is necessary to differentiate the concept of polarisation a bit further, as I will do in the next section.

Interpretative polarisation

In this paper, I understand polarisation as a dynamic phenomenon, driven by “interpretative” polarisation, “the process wherein different groups in a society contextualise a common topic in starkly different ways” so that “frames used by one camp are deemed unfounded, inappropriate, or illegitimate by other camps” (Kligler-Vilenchik et al., 2020 , p. 2). Social media are so rooted in our daily lives that they receive attention from a range of disciplines, and many commentators still purport that social media “foster extreme viewpoints by design” (Bhopal and Munro, 2021 ) and are thus inherently geared to produce polarisation.

A range of evidence argues against this deterministic view, however. In a review of a range of studies, Tucker et al. ( 2018 , pp. 15–16) argue that “[t]he consumption of political information through social media increases cross-cutting exposure, which has a range of positive effects on civic engagement, political moderation, and the quality of democratic politics, but also facilitates the spread of misinformation”. Bruns ( 2019 ) has cast doubt on Pariser’s ( 2011 ) concept of the “filter bubble”, and the popular idea that social bots on Twitter “pretend to be a human user and [are] operated by some sinister actor to manipulate public opinion” seems unfounded according to recent research (Gallwitz and Kreil, 2021 ). Frequent use of ever more available social media diversifies individuals’ networks, which may alleviate concerns about echo chambers on social media (Lee et al., 2014 ), though may not necessarily “create more informed citizens” (Papacharissi, 2002 , p. 15), or a public sphere as such: While social media use “may reduce ideological polarisation as a result of leading to higher cross-cutting exposure, it may simultaneously increase affective polarisation because of the negative nature of these interactions” (Tucker et al., 2018 , p. 21), of which the Covid-19 pandemic has provided many.

In the absence of knowledge on the disease, the reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic subverted the established ideological standpoints. The range of ideological persuasions observed at anti-lockdown protests and the fact that liberal thinkers argue for closed borders while conservative thinkers question night-time curfews and police presence shows that the conflict cannot be thought along the usual partisan lines. Research on polarisation has argued for the recognition of various dimensions of opinion polarisation: Where new issues arise, people are prepared to deviate from their regular partisan or ideological direction (Wojcieszak and Rojas, 2011 ). Studies suggest that partisan/ideological affiliation is not as directly influenced by knowledge as issue-related opinions:

[K]nowledge is found to predict the variance of two issue-related measures of polarisation, whereas there is no such association between knowledge and partisan/ideological polarisation. This is consistent with previous research that the more knowledgeable are likely to move to more extreme issue positions by counter arguing claims incompatible with their political predisposition. (Lee et al., 2014 , pp. 716–717)

People evaluate objects that they encounter frequently along different lines to rare but impactful objects: differing findings for party/ideology and issue-related polarisation suggest that the underlying mechanism of partisan and ideological polarisation is distinct from that of issue-related processes (Tucker et al., 2018 , pp. 40–48). This recognition shows that studies or surveys linking attitudes towards the Covid-19 pandemic to partisan affiliations are not entirely informative.

In a study of how citizens evaluate arguments about contested issues, Taber and Lodge ( 2006 ) find that prior attitudes decisively guide how new information is processed:

Far from the rational calculator portrayed in enlightenment prose and spatial equations, homo politicus would seem to be a creature of simple likes and prejudices that are quite resistant to change. […] Skepticism is valuable and attitudes should have inertia. But skepticism becomes bias when it becomes unreasonably resistant to change and especially when it leads one to avoid information as with the confirmation bias. (Taber and Lodge, 2006 , pp. 767–768)

The “boundary line between rational skepticism and irrational bias” (Taber and Lodge, 2006 , p. 768) is a key issue in discussions about the Covid-19 pandemic, and one that can perhaps not be established in a normative way.

To address the question of why a newly arisen issue that could not be addressed by existing political schemes has polarised society so quickly, we may argue, then, that different contextualisations of the same issue have produced different evaluations in people (Kligler-Vilenchik et al., 2020 ). While people can generally process multiple frames and evaluate different angles, this ability may be hampered where “competing groups rely exclusively on contrasting frames and reject (or are unaware of) those frames underlying divergent preferences”, which may lead to “contrasting interpretations that sustain irreconcilable positions”. It is this configuration that, I argue, leads to interpretative polarisation, which may make “meaningful conversation between groups almost impossible” (Kligler-Vilenchik et al., 2020 , p. 2) and reinforce political polarisation.

Examples of such contrasting interpretations abound. The term lockdown has had differing definitions in each country, which led to shadings such as hard/soft lockdown . The term new normal was perhaps meant to anchor hygiene measures in people’s thoughts, but is seen by many as an attempt to normalise draconian restrictions and situations that are clearly anything but normal. The dichotomy of health vs economy is another example of how the same issue can be presented in different lights, depending on the angle one takes.

Interpretative polarisation can explain why partisan analysis does not apply to the Covid-19 pandemic as an extraordinary phenomenon whose epidemic psychology, as I have argued so far, made necessary new reflections, a process of knowledge production. The Covid-19 pandemic challenges existing ideological boundaries, so an analysis of its discourse requires an approach that goes beyond seeing ideology as a given structural object and instead analyses hegemonies and power struggles inherent in all discourses of knowledge production.

Discursive structures of exclusion

Exclusion through dialogic contraction.

An oft-repeated charge in debates on the Covid-19 pandemic is that particular voices or opinions have been ignored or excluded from the debate, that particular things cannot be said. This is then countered by the reminder that there is free speech, that anyone can publish anything after all. Both positions forget that discourses are generally considered to be “principally organised around practices of exclusion” (Mills, 2004 , p. 11): Any notion of what seems natural to say or what seems unsayable is the result of such exclusion practices, of “battles ‘for truth’” where, in the words of Foucault, “by truth I do not mean ‘the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted’, but rather ‘the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true’” (Foucault, 1980 , p. 132).

Foucault ( 1981 , pp. 52–54) proposes three procedures of exclusion: prohibition, the division of reason/madness and the opposition between true/false (the “will to truth”). The argument that nobody is excluded because everyone is free to publish anything misunderstands practices of discursive exclusion by reducing them to the first of those principles (prohibition) while ignoring the existence of the other two. Based on Bakhtin’s concept of “centripetal-centrifugal struggle”, Baxter ( 2011 ) argues that, as it is “difficult to presume that all discourses are equal in the play for meaning, […] competing discourses are not equally legitimated. Some are centred (the centripetal) and others are marginalised (centrifugal). In the instance of monologue, all but a single totalising discourse is erased” (Baxter, 2011 , p. 14). Thus, the struggles of exclusion are regular phenomena of hegemony in discourse, made visible through the extraordinary process of knowledge generation. The fact that free speech is constrained and certain things become dominant in discourses while others become unsayable is a product of competing power relations in a discourse (see Mills, 2004 , p. 64). These power relations, as usual in Foucauldian thought, are not inherently negative or positive, but potentially dangerous if not questioned, which is the aim of this section.

In what follows, I investigate two discursive structures of exclusion via dialogic contraction that originate in the emancipatory modernist approach to ideology in discourse identified above: First, the reference to an abstract authority ( the science ) and second, accusations of conspiracy theories . I understand dialogic contraction with reference to Bakhtinian dialogism (for an introduction, see Robinson, 2011 ) as used in various theories of discourse analysis such as Appraisal Theory (Martin and White, 2005 ) and Relational Dialectics Theory. In the latter, discourses (defined roughly as systems of meaning or “voices”) compete in discursive struggle, on a cline between monologic and idealised dialogic (Baxter, 2011 ). While in idealised dialogism all discourses are given equal weight, monologism consists of “a discursive playing field so unequal that all but one monologic, authoritative discourse is silenced” (Baxter, 2011 , p. 9). This model is useful for analysing the discourse on the Covid-19 pandemic because it reflects the accusation that the public debate has increasingly become monologic, with the authoritative discourse of the respective political leaders and their close circles of experts in the dominant position.

One of the first demands on social media at the beginning of the pandemic was that people should be quiet and “let experts talk”. These calls were meant to reduce noise in the discourse, a defence mechanism to the heated reactions in the networks, in line with early reactions of epidemic psychology. They were initial reactionary attempts to exclude voices from commenting on what was from the beginning a complex social crisis that concerns everyone. Attempts to restrict the discourse to “experts” only later crystallised into the two frequent formulas that we should follow the science and that we must combat conspiracy theories .

This simplistic binary choice juxtaposing the science/experts/evidence with conspiracy theories/fake news is at the heart of the dialogic contraction in the Covid-19 pandemic. It makes it seem as though the only available positions are either to believe Covid-19 to be a global threat that eclipses all other threats or to deny its existence altogether, thus mirroring labellings used in the climate debate, which “isolate, exclude, ignore, and dismiss claim-makers of all types from constructive dialogue” (Howarth and Sharman, 2015 , p. 239).

These strategies of dialogic contraction work by appealing to taken-for-granted truths (science is good, populism is bad) and to an imagined neutral position outside ideology, power and discourse. This position is workable in routine debates, where challenges are either confined to academic circles or addressed by societies’ “general politics of truth” (Foucault, 1980 , p. 131). In an epistemologically disruptive event such as the Covid-19 pandemic, however, as I argue in this article, the role of science in the public enters the spotlight, epistemic psychology challenges our established routines, and discursive structures of dialogic contraction towards a monologic extreme rapidly translate into social polarisation.

Critical approaches to discourse that are conscious of and able to consider power relations as they emerge from discursive practice thus seem better suited to study our present situation. To study language with the aim of explaining power rather than just reveal it, we must show how power operates in discourses rather than how it is held by particular, pre-categorised actors or institutions (Pennycook, 2001 , p. 93). As Katsambekis and Stavrakakis ( 2020 ) argue:

In many cases, understanding the policies of certain actors through the lens of ‘populism’ […] and the vague notion of a ‘populist threat to democracy’, often adopted in typical anti-populist discourses, seems to be diverting attention from other imminent dangers to democracy, most importantly: nativism, nationalism, authoritarianism, racism. (Katsambekis and Stavrakakis, 2020 , p. 7)

Having established discursive structures of exclusion as inherent to all discourse, I now discuss two strategies of dialogic contraction that I consider to be fundamental to the polarisation that we have seen in this pandemic and that let us answer why a global health crisis and the knowledge production that ensued, where we are all on the same side, has become such a polarising topic.

The science as legitimating authority

A central claim made by most leaders throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has been that they “follow the science” (Pérez-González, 2020b ; Stevens, 2020 ; Pierce, 2021 ). In his first prime-time address to the nation on 11 March, Joe Biden said, “we know what we need to do to beat this virus. Tell the truth. Follow the scientists and the science”. What is unclear about such statements is what exactly “the science” refers to. Sweden, under Anders Tegnell’s advice, also “follows the science”, and the rate of agreement of the Swedish scientific community, when asked whether scientific advice had been taken into account, does not differ from that reported for other countries (Rijs and Fenter, 2020 ). Yet the Swedish approach, generally described as at best “unorthodox”, differs radically to that of many other countries, and mentioning “Sweden” in a current social network discussion is a safe way of being delegitimised as a reasonable discourse actor (Torjesen, 2021 ).

This suggests that the reductive notion of the science , like the similar formula the evidence (see Furedi, 2020 ), is defined based on particular principles of authority, established, though not overtly specified, by dominant discourse actors. It disclaims the multivoicedness, interdisciplinarity and plurality of processes of knowledge production (Knorr-Cetina, 1999 ) and serves as a discursive strategy of dialogic contraction, an expression of discursive hegemony: “The debate becomes polarised and binary: if the science says yes to face coverings, then challenging the orthodoxy or even questioning its universality becomes heretical” (Martin et al., 2020 , p. 506).

Taylor ( 2010 ) conducts a corpus-assisted study of the use of the term the science in UK press articles between 1993 and 2008. Referring to Aristotle’s model of rhetoric and argumentation, she argues that science , instead of being used as part of logos, providing logical proof, “is increasingly used as a part of ethos, that is, persuasion at the interpersonal level”, projecting a particular stance towards the audience and appealing to an unspecified or unexplained authority, “making the writer’s personal character appear more credible by enroling ‘science’ on their side of an argument” (Taylor, 2010 , p. 222). This is especially the case where authors “refer to some unspecified, autonomous, authoritative entity” such as the science (Taylor, 2010 , p. 236). These findings are echoed by Pérez-González’s ( 2020a , p. 13) study of a corpus of a wide range of climate change blogs, where bloggers attempt to construct authoritative voices of consensus by using the the science formula.

While scientific discourse in general is rarely characterised by consensus, it is much less so in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. A review of studies shows that a lot of research on the issue has been biased or of low quality (Raynaud et al., 2021 ). Critiques of bias in the acceptation and rejection of evidence have long existed (Stevens, 2007 ) and are echoed in a cross-country report on populism in the Covid-19 pandemic:

“Experts” are not neutral actors that will save liberal democracy from “bad populists”. […] [T]he pandemic has rather revealed the deeply political character of scientific input in critical junctures as well as the very political agency of experts themselves. […] It becomes apparent then that exactly as populists do not form a coherent bloc in the pandemic, experts too cannot be treated as a unified front, thus the dichotomy “ experts vs populists” is exposed as fundamentally flawed once more in the context of the ongoing crisis. (Katsambekis and Stavrakakis, 2020 , pp. 7–8)

Many righteous approaches to the Covid-19 pandemic, but also to the climate emergency, succeed in identifying ideologically motivated harmful practices, but succumb to the emancipatory modernist lack of self-reflexivity on whether its messages, which are meant to convince the targeted audience, do not just patronise it, as discussed above. Populists will respond to this not by accepting that they are wrong, but by rejecting the entire frame of knowledge: “We’ll probably also start to hear calls for climate lockdowns. I know, right now that sounds completely preposterous, but don’t these kooky ideas always find a way to bleed into the mainstream? […] Don’t worry though, they’re just following the science ” (Miller, 2021 ).

It is understandable to want to reinforce a society that bases its actions on informed opinion, especially in the age of Trumpism. However, it is the very reductionism of an approach that makes an unspecified truth-claim to the science and disqualifies everything else as unreasonable that allows populist actors like Trump to gain power by turning the same simple strategy on its head. The postmodernist challenges of a simplified, messianic notion of the science remain valid. The formula represents a simplistic and hegemonic view of what “science” is and threatens to turn it into a buzzword of discursive exclusion and disciplining, undermining equal engagement in knowledge production.

Conspiracy theory as a sanctioning device

The second structure of exclusion I discuss is the term conspiracy theory . Husting and Orr ( 2007 ) critique this term as a metadiscursive “vocabulary of motive in struggles over the meaning of social and political worlds, events, and ideas” ( 2007 , p. 132). In simple terms, its use signifies a discursive move of “going meta”, that is, “elect[ing] to step back from the immediacy of a question to question the questioner’s motives, or tone, or premises, or right to ask certain questions, or right to ask any questions at all” (Simons, 1994 , p. 470). Invoking the label conspiracy theory thus has the function of “shifting the focus of discourse to reframe another’s claims as unwarranted or unworthy of full consideration” (Husting and Orr, 2007 , p. 129). While research has put into question whether applying the label has any negative effect on the targeted actor’s beliefs (Wood, 2016 ), the accusation of conspiracy theory seeks to discursively expel actors from the community of reasonable interlocutors, thus “protecting certain decisions and people from question in arenas of political, cultural, and scholarly knowledge construction” (Husting and Orr, 2007 , p. 130) by reverting the focus of attention onto the questioner.

This discursive structure is often used in “cultures of fear” that “generate new mechanisms of social control” (Husting and Orr, 2007 , p. 128). Considering that many European countries are still in constant alert mode from terrorism, the description of such a culture fits the past year quite well:

fear and threat become the means for media, politicians, and corporations to sell commodities, buy votes, and justify policies reducing civil rights and promoting war (Altheide, 2000 ). As a mythos of consensus has turned into a mythos of fear, we would expect to find new interactional mechanisms to shield authority and legitimacy from challenge or accountability. (Husting and Orr, 2007 , p. 130)

More recently, Husting ( 2018 ) identifies two problems with current academic and journalist discourse around conspiracy. First, a cognitive approach, which “attempts to diagnose traits like character and intelligence, intent on identifying hidden, usually individualised causes of constructing, believing in, and circulating conspiracy theories” (Husting, 2018 , p. 111). By psychologising the subjects of its analysis in this way, “it misses the political work done by the labels themselves” and overstates their coherence to argue for their danger to society (Husting, 2018 , p. 112). Husting argues that this cognitive analysis expresses a neoliberal responsibilisation of the individual in various ways to “follow expert advice to optimise well-being and health of body, mind, and polis” (Husting, 2018 , p. 113). As citizens, we “regulate ourselves by regulating, judging, and contemning others, and keeping our own thoughts and styles of reason and emotion clear” (Husting, 2018 , p. 123). The disputes over truth, falsity and conspiracy theories thus “serve to construct, circulate, and enact a ‘well-tempered’ citizen in liberal politics” (Husting, 2018 , p. 113).

The second problem Husting ( 2018 ) identifies with current conspiracy theory discourse is its affective register. According to dominant analyses, conspiracy theorists “step out of the sphere of reason and logic, and enter the terrain of the emotional and the psychotic” (Husting, 2018 , p. 117). Yet conspiracy discourse is itself “a form of emotional and political engagement driven by contempt and laced with anger and fear” by policing the boundaries of reasonable political doubt and theorising an “uncorrupted democratic sphere” (Husting, 2018 , p. 117) outside ideology. By constructing conspiracy theories as threats to the order of the state and to the uncorrupted citizen, conspiracy theory discourse falls victim to the same pseudo-messianic discursive approach it seeks to unravel.

In a study of Wikipedia edits of the article on the German word for conspiracy theory, Verschwörungstheorie , Vogel ( 2018 ) argues that the term is not used with a descriptive, analytical function, but is part of an established metadiscursive accusatory, stigmatising and disciplinary pattern to sanction views from a position or epistemology outside the collectivism and the “sayable” in the ingroup, whose validity is assumed to be taken for granted (Vogel, 2018 , p. 281). As Husting ( 2018 , p. 120) says, “[o]nce the label ‘conspiracy theory’ sticks to someone, it impugns their intellectual and moral competence and relieves hearers of the need to consider the validity of her or his claims”. The use of the term, thus, lacks a problematisation of one’s own supposed neutrality. Its use is hegemonic, not analytical.

Vogel ( 2018 ) studies Wikipedia discourse specifically, but his observations are transferable to general social media discourse. And in the pandemic knowledge production, the epistemological conditions and power relations among participants within such knowledge production movements (Esteves, 2008 ) are comparable. Due to the shift of the public sphere into the digital as discussed above, most people will have experienced debates in online worlds along with everything this entails.

In a comprehensive survey of the usage of conspiracy theory , Butter ( 2018 ) writes that, while the Internet and social media have made conspiracy theories more visible and fast-moving, they are no more frequent or influential than they used to be because they are still regarded as “stigmatised knowledge”. In the wake of the current surge of populism combined with the fragmentation of society through the Internet, Butter ( 2018 , p. 18) argues, the fragmented public sphere and the different notions of truth condition the current debate in which some are afraid again of conspiracies while others are still worried about the fatal effects of conspiracy theories. The dialogic contraction we are arguably seeing can thus be traced to a particular constellation of fears for the public sphere combined with the fear of the pandemic.

In sum, value-laden terms such as conspiracy theory are attempts to exercise discursive power over others by excluding them from being reasonable participants in the debate, both in everyday interactions by users and in official government acts. Mechanisms that define limits of the sayable “weaken public spaces that are central for interaction, contest, and deliberation: the spaces where we define our world” (Husting and Orr, 2007 , p. 147).

In this section, I have discussed two structures of exclusion by dialogic contraction: the science and conspiracy theory . These are common terms in everyday discourse, but, as I have shown, their appropriateness for academic study and debate is questionable due to their hegemonic nature and unreflected reference to accepted and sanctioned knowledge. This is not to say, of course, that we should endorse conspiracy theories or reject science. The aim is rather to become aware of how all types of knowledge are related to power. I am not interested here in evaluating the veracity of particular discourses on the Covid-19 pandemic (cf. Husting and Orr, 2007 , p. 131), or even in whether conspiracy theories are dangerous or not, but in the mechanisms whereby one discourse becomes considered dominant and thus supported by financial and social capital whereas the other becomes confined to the margins of society (Mills, 2004 , p. 17).

In this paper, I have adopted the model of epidemic psychology, which functions fundamentally through linguistic interaction, and argued that social media use has fomented its effects in the reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic by providing sustained access to commentary and linguistic interaction. I have suggested that this social interaction in a context of a volatile intellectual state can be seen as a discourse of knowledge production, conducted largely on social media. This view, along with the power relations it implies, provides an approach to understanding the dynamics of polarisation as interpretative, outside established partisan lines. To understand the polarisation better, I have discussed two discursive structures of exclusion, the terms the science and conspiracy theory , which have characterised the knowledge production discourse of the Covid-19 pandemic on social media. I have argued that these are strategies of dialogic contraction which are based on a hegemonic view of knowledge and a simplistic view of ideology based in the emancipatory modernist view of language that represents the currently dominant form of discourse analysis.

With this line of argument, I have intended to make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic discourse and take a step towards understanding the polarisation in our societies. As I have argued, this polarisation is due to discourse practices and not attributable to social media technology. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to reflect on many things, not just ourselves, but also the way we study society and (means of) communication. A great amount of data is being collected (see, e.g. Chen et al., 2020 ) and many studies will investigate the role of language and social media in the social transformation we are going to see in the coming years. I hope that the literature review conducted in this article has contributed some reflections on pertinent concepts and possible methodologies, or at least heuristics, for these future studies to consider.

From the perspective of discourse studies, I have endorsed the practice of Critical Applied Linguistics (Pennycook, 2001 ), which identifies both strengths and weaknesses of current approaches to discourse and seeks to improve on them by a greater foundation in critical theory and by a series of paradigmatic characteristics to problematise practice. Arguments are to be sought in texts, not in author profiles, so constructing corpora of texts harvested in “conspiracy theory” or “anti-vaxxer” forums or that consist of “fake news” means starting from a value position, a truth claim that can only confirm ideologies we already look for, but hardly explain their working in society. As Butter and Knight ( 2016 , p. 23) argue, “the aim of producing empirical, value-neutral research on the phenomenon of ‘conspiracy theory’ is misguided, because the term itself is not value-neutral”.

Categories such as “class”, “gender”, but also “identity” are often assumed to “exist prior to language”, to be reflected in language use, when really they need to be explained themselves, with language being a part of this explanation (Cameron, 1995 , p. 15). Like other conflicts, the polarisation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic has unveiled “the processes of norm-making and norm-breaking, bringing into the open the arguments that surround rules […] and how unquestioned (‘conventional’) ways of behaving are implicitly understood by social actors” (Cameron, 1995 , p. 17). It is this kind of processes that should be studied from a self-reflexive position that is aware of its own subjection to ideology and power relations.

A promising approach might be found in the Critical Disinformation Studies syllabus (Marwick et al., 2021 ), which argues, among other things, that fake news do not originate in extremism, but that “strategic disinformation and its cousin ‘propaganda’ are state and media industry practices with very long histories”, so instead of “plac[ing] the responsibility on individuals to become better consumers of media”, this approach seeks to “foreground questions of power, institutions, and economic, social, cultural, and technological structures as they shape disinformation”. Research shows that greater public awareness of how science communication works increases the acceptance of scientific findings regardless of partisan ideologies (Weisberg et al., 2021 ).

The process of knowledge production on social media I envision in this paper in many ways resembles what is taking place in climate action and environmentalism (Pérez-González, 2020a ). One might counter that the pandemic response cannot be called a social movement, but has been more of an emergency response to a problem that was always short-lived, and much more fast-paced than climate change, so is not perfectly comparable. But the knowledge production conducted on social media, and some of the movements born from this (see Sitrin and Colectiva Sembrar, 2020 ), provides a blueprint for environmentalism, a social movement that could benefit from the same kind of knowledge-practice. Some see the Covid-19 pandemic as a “test run” for the climate emergency, as there is hope “that the great mobilisations of state resources currently being unspooled to address Covid-19 prove the possibility of a comparable or greater mobilisation against ecological catastrophe” (Clover, 2021 , p. S28). Nevertheless, the climate emergency has only recently been labelled thus and its perceived and mediatised urgency does not match that of Covid-19, though of course its destructive potential is far greater. The debate on science and knowledge in our societies and the ways in which these discourses are structured and mediated in social networks are thus of prime importance.

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This work is part of the project Frames and narratives of translation and of migration in Europe , funded by the Spanish Ministry for Science, Innovation and Universities (MCIU) and the Agencia Estatal de Investigación (AEI), with grant number PID2019-107971GA-I00.

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A CEESP virtual dialogue took place exploring prior assumptions of the pandemic, the current situation and its impact on gender: issues of inequality, violence, access to education, health care, livelihoods and financial independence.

The COVID-19 outbreak brought new threats to indigenous peoples and rural communities, as well as exacerbated violence, in particular against women and girls, as quarantine conditions has made unsafe homes even more dangerous.

The recording of the Dialogue is available below, as well as an  Infographic summarizing some topics discussed during the Dialogue, including  1) challenges, 2) lessons learned, 3) recommendations for IUCN, and 4) calls to action . 

As a community we have been speaking of the need for transformational change – let us work together now to ensure we follow a thoughtful sustainable path. IUCN will continue to engage with women and men across communities to build and implement safe and gender-equitable solutions.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender

Virtual Dialogue Panelists:  

  • Itzá Castañeda Camey - IUCN Gender Advisor (Mexico); 
  • Kame Westermen, Senior Gender Advisor, Conservation International; 
  • Mahfuza Akter (Mala), Gender Justice & Social Inclusion Program, Oxfam Bangladesh; 
  • Enamul Mazid Khan Siddique, Head of Climate Justice & Natural Resource Rights, Oxfam Bangladesh;
  • Senator (Retired) Javed Jabbar, Founding President Baanhn Beli, Former IUCN Global Vice President, Pakistan

Remarks and Moderation by:  Meher M. Noshirwani, Regional Vice Chair Asia & Specialist Group on Gender, IUCN CEESP; Kristen Walker Painemilla - Chair of IUCN CEESP

* The CEESP Specialist Group on Gender focuses on Gender equality in conservation, and works to ‘strengthen the understanding of and promote the full achievement of gender equality and women’s empowerment in conservation and sustainable development policy and practice, including gender-based violence and environmental linkages.’ 

dialogue writing on covid 19

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What the Data Says About Pandemic School Closures, Four Years Later

The more time students spent in remote instruction, the further they fell behind. And, experts say, extended closures did little to stop the spread of Covid.

Sarah Mervosh

By Sarah Mervosh ,  Claire Cain Miller and Francesca Paris

Four years ago this month, schools nationwide began to shut down, igniting one of the most polarizing and partisan debates of the pandemic.

Some schools, often in Republican-led states and rural areas, reopened by fall 2020. Others, typically in large cities and states led by Democrats, would not fully reopen for another year.

A variety of data — about children’s academic outcomes and about the spread of Covid-19 — has accumulated in the time since. Today, there is broad acknowledgment among many public health and education experts that extended school closures did not significantly stop the spread of Covid, while the academic harms for children have been large and long-lasting.

While poverty and other factors also played a role, remote learning was a key driver of academic declines during the pandemic, research shows — a finding that held true across income levels.

Source: Fahle, Kane, Patterson, Reardon, Staiger and Stuart, “ School District and Community Factors Associated With Learning Loss During the COVID-19 Pandemic .” Score changes are measured from 2019 to 2022. In-person means a district offered traditional in-person learning, even if not all students were in-person.

“There’s fairly good consensus that, in general, as a society, we probably kept kids out of school longer than we should have,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, a pediatric infectious disease specialist who helped write guidance for the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommended in June 2020 that schools reopen with safety measures in place.

There were no easy decisions at the time. Officials had to weigh the risks of an emerging virus against the academic and mental health consequences of closing schools. And even schools that reopened quickly, by the fall of 2020, have seen lasting effects.

But as experts plan for the next public health emergency, whatever it may be, a growing body of research shows that pandemic school closures came at a steep cost to students.

The longer schools were closed, the more students fell behind.

At the state level, more time spent in remote or hybrid instruction in the 2020-21 school year was associated with larger drops in test scores, according to a New York Times analysis of school closure data and results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress , an authoritative exam administered to a national sample of fourth- and eighth-grade students.

At the school district level, that finding also holds, according to an analysis of test scores from third through eighth grade in thousands of U.S. districts, led by researchers at Stanford and Harvard. In districts where students spent most of the 2020-21 school year learning remotely, they fell more than half a grade behind in math on average, while in districts that spent most of the year in person they lost just over a third of a grade.

( A separate study of nearly 10,000 schools found similar results.)

Such losses can be hard to overcome, without significant interventions. The most recent test scores, from spring 2023, show that students, overall, are not caught up from their pandemic losses , with larger gaps remaining among students that lost the most ground to begin with. Students in districts that were remote or hybrid the longest — at least 90 percent of the 2020-21 school year — still had almost double the ground to make up compared with students in districts that allowed students back for most of the year.

Some time in person was better than no time.

As districts shifted toward in-person learning as the year went on, students that were offered a hybrid schedule (a few hours or days a week in person, with the rest online) did better, on average, than those in places where school was fully remote, but worse than those in places that had school fully in person.

Students in hybrid or remote learning, 2020-21

80% of students

Some schools return online, as Covid-19 cases surge. Vaccinations start for high-priority groups.

Teachers are eligible for the Covid vaccine in more than half of states.

Most districts end the year in-person or hybrid.

Source: Burbio audit of more than 1,200 school districts representing 47 percent of U.S. K-12 enrollment. Note: Learning mode was defined based on the most in-person option available to students.

Income and family background also made a big difference.

A second factor associated with academic declines during the pandemic was a community’s poverty level. Comparing districts with similar remote learning policies, poorer districts had steeper losses.

But in-person learning still mattered: Looking at districts with similar poverty levels, remote learning was associated with greater declines.

A community’s poverty rate and the length of school closures had a “roughly equal” effect on student outcomes, said Sean F. Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford, who led a district-level analysis with Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard.

Score changes are measured from 2019 to 2022. Poorest and richest are the top and bottom 20% of districts by percent of students on free/reduced lunch. Mostly in-person and mostly remote are districts that offered traditional in-person learning for more than 90 percent or less than 10 percent of the 2020-21 year.

But the combination — poverty and remote learning — was particularly harmful. For each week spent remote, students in poor districts experienced steeper losses in math than peers in richer districts.

That is notable, because poor districts were also more likely to stay remote for longer .

Some of the country’s largest poor districts are in Democratic-leaning cities that took a more cautious approach to the virus. Poor areas, and Black and Hispanic communities , also suffered higher Covid death rates, making many families and teachers in those districts hesitant to return.

“We wanted to survive,” said Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group in Memphis, where schools were closed until spring 2021 .

“But I also think, man, looking back, I wish our kids could have gone back to school much quicker,” she added, citing the academic effects.

Other things were also associated with worse student outcomes, including increased anxiety and depression among adults in children’s lives, and the overall restriction of social activity in a community, according to the Stanford and Harvard research .

Even short closures had long-term consequences for children.

While being in school was on average better for academic outcomes, it wasn’t a guarantee. Some districts that opened early, like those in Cherokee County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, and Hanover County, Va., lost significant learning and remain behind.

At the same time, many schools are seeing more anxiety and behavioral outbursts among students. And chronic absenteeism from school has surged across demographic groups .

These are signs, experts say, that even short-term closures, and the pandemic more broadly, had lasting effects on the culture of education.

“There was almost, in the Covid era, a sense of, ‘We give up, we’re just trying to keep body and soul together,’ and I think that was corrosive to the higher expectations of schools,” said Margaret Spellings, an education secretary under President George W. Bush who is now chief executive of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Closing schools did not appear to significantly slow Covid’s spread.

Perhaps the biggest question that hung over school reopenings: Was it safe?

That was largely unknown in the spring of 2020, when schools first shut down. But several experts said that had changed by the fall of 2020, when there were initial signs that children were less likely to become seriously ill, and growing evidence from Europe and parts of the United States that opening schools, with safety measures, did not lead to significantly more transmission.

“Infectious disease leaders have generally agreed that school closures were not an important strategy in stemming the spread of Covid,” said Dr. Jeanne Noble, who directed the Covid response at the U.C.S.F. Parnassus emergency department.

Politically, though, there remains some disagreement about when, exactly, it was safe to reopen school.

Republican governors who pushed to open schools sooner have claimed credit for their approach, while Democrats and teachers’ unions have emphasized their commitment to safety and their investment in helping students recover.

“I do believe it was the right decision,” said Jerry T. Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which resisted returning to school in person over concerns about the availability of vaccines and poor ventilation in school buildings. Philadelphia schools waited to partially reopen until the spring of 2021 , a decision Mr. Jordan believes saved lives.

“It doesn’t matter what is going on in the building and how much people are learning if people are getting the virus and running the potential of dying,” he said.

Pandemic school closures offer lessons for the future.

Though the next health crisis may have different particulars, with different risk calculations, the consequences of closing schools are now well established, experts say.

In the future, infectious disease experts said, they hoped decisions would be guided more by epidemiological data as it emerged, taking into account the trade-offs.

“Could we have used data to better guide our decision making? Yes,” said Dr. Uzma N. Hasan, division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at RWJBarnabas Health in Livingston, N.J. “Fear should not guide our decision making.”

Source: Fahle, Kane, Patterson, Reardon, Staiger and Stuart, “ School District and Community Factors Associated With Learning Loss During the Covid-19 Pandemic. ”

The study used estimates of learning loss from the Stanford Education Data Archive . For closure lengths, the study averaged district-level estimates of time spent in remote and hybrid learning compiled by the Covid-19 School Data Hub (C.S.D.H.) and American Enterprise Institute (A.E.I.) . The A.E.I. data defines remote status by whether there was an in-person or hybrid option, even if some students chose to remain virtual. In the C.S.D.H. data set, districts are defined as remote if “all or most” students were virtual.

An earlier version of this article misstated a job description of Dr. Jeanne Noble. She directed the Covid response at the U.C.S.F. Parnassus emergency department. She did not direct the Covid response for the University of California, San Francisco health system.

How we handle corrections

Sarah Mervosh covers education for The Times, focusing on K-12 schools. More about Sarah Mervosh

Claire Cain Miller writes about gender, families and the future of work for The Upshot. She joined The Times in 2008 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. More about Claire Cain Miller

Francesca Paris is a Times reporter working with data and graphics for The Upshot. More about Francesca Paris

dialogue writing on covid 19

Moderna’s New Covid-19 Vaccine Shows Positive Results

Moderna announced positive results in a Phase-3 trial for an updated Covid-19 shot.

Moderna said in a news release Tuesday that the company’s “next generation Covid-19 vaccine,” has shown a higher immune response to the virus than the current version of the shot.

The new vaccine evoked a stronger immune response to both the Omicron and original strain of Covid-19. This was most notable in people over the age of 65 years old, Moderna said.

The new vaccine also has an improved shelf life, which could “alleviate healthcare provider burden,” the company added.

“mRNA-1283 is a critical component of our combination vaccine against flu and Covid-19, mRNA-1083, and this milestone gives us confidence in our ability to bring this much needed vaccine to market,” Chief Executive Stéphane Bancel said in the release.

Shares of Moderna were down 0.2% Tuesday to $110.12. The stock has gained 11% this year.

Shares of competitor Pfizer were off 0.1% to $27.40. The S&P 500 was up 0.2% after the market open.

Write to Angela Palumbo at [email protected]

Moderna’s New Covid-19 Vaccine Shows Positive Results

Content Search

Global dialogue on responding to the covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis: building back better aligned to the sdgs and the paris agreement, attachments.

Preview of bmu-wri-dialogue-summary.pdf

Summary for Policymaking

An early glimpse of the future

The COVID-19 crisis provides an early glimpse of how the climate and biodiversity crises will afect the world. The impacts of the pandemic and economic lockdown have led to a stark decline in development gains, disproportionately afecting low-income and vulnerable households, communities and countries. Disparities have sharpened within countries and between developed and developing countries; the latter has experienced a “perfect storm” of unemployment, capital fight, loss of remittances, and increasing debt leading to the largest economic contraction in decades.

Though slower in onset, the climate and biodiversity crises will ultimately be deeper and broader in impact, undercutting our ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Moreover, these crises are interlinked; the shrinking space between natural and human systems is one of the root causes for zoonotic pandemics.

Yet the lockdown demonstrated extraordinary interventions are possible. Safeguarding human health was put at the center of policymaking and public investment. And we experienced a diferent world, a postcard from the future: cleaner air and water, less trafc and noise, and often more engagement with community, family and nature. While the severe pain of the crisis must not be underestimated, these experiences can help us envision the future we want. Building an inclusive, green and resilient recovery is now an urgent and shared global challenge. We must build back in a way that addresses the very signifcant near-term challenges of unemployment, food insecurity and jump-starting the economy, while tackling the underlying drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss. Because stimulus packages are emerging at lightning speed and the power of incumbency and inertia is strong, we need to quickly build public and political support for change.

It is essential to shift from snapshot to transition thinking. We should consider three categories for the recovery: the industries and technologies of the future (such as renewable energy, electric vehicles, and sustainable agriculture) that must be accelerated; those of the past (such as coal power) that must be phased out; and those in transition (such as steel, automotive and aviation) that must be shifted toward transformation. While recovery eforts will likely be uneven and extend over several years, the critical timeframe for action is the next 15 months, as countries invest $10-20 trillion or more for relief and recovery. How countries and the international community pursue the recovery will determine the climate and sustainable development trajectory for the coming decade.

Related Content

Strengthening health systems: a practical handbook for resilience testing, informe desarrollo humano 2023-2024 (snapshot español), rapport sur le développement humain 2023-2024, human development report 2023/2024: breaking the gridlock: reimagining cooperation in a polarized world [en/ar/ru/zh/jp].

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Community dialogue meetings among district leaders improved their willingness to receive COVID-19 vaccines in Western Uganda, May 2021

Edirisa juniour nsubuga.

1 Uganda Public Health Fellowship Program, Kampala, Uganda

Arthur G. Fitzmaurice

2 United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kampala, Uganda

Allan Komakech

Tom dias odoi.

3 Baylor College of Medicine Children’s Foundation, Kampala, Uganda

Daniel Kadobera

4 Uganda National Institute of Public Health, Kampala, Uganda

Lilian Bulage

Benon kwesiga, peter james elyanu, alex riolexus ario, julie r. harris, associated data.

The datasets upon which our findings are based belong to the Uganda Public Health Fellowship Program. For confidentiality reasons, the datasets are not publicly available. However, the datasets can be made available upon reasonable request from the corresponding author and with permission from the Uganda Public Health Fellowship Program.

Widespread COVID-19 vaccine uptake can facilitate epidemic control. A February 2021 study in Uganda suggested that public vaccine uptake would follow uptake among leaders. In May 2021, Baylor Uganda led community dialogue meetings with district leaders from Western Uganda to promote vaccine uptake. We assessed the effect of these meetings on the leaders’ COVID-19 risk perception, vaccine concerns, perception of vaccine benefits and access, and willingness to receive COVID-19 vaccine.

All departmental district leaders in the 17 districts in Western Uganda, were invited to the meetings, which lasted approximately four hours. Printed reference materials about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines were provided to attendees at the start of the meetings. The same topics were discussed in all meetings. Before and after the meetings, leaders completed self-administered questionnaires with questions on a five-point Likert Scale about risk perception, vaccine concerns, perceived vaccine benefits, vaccine access, and willingness to receive the vaccine. We analyzed the findings using Wilcoxon’s signed-rank test.

Among 268 attendees, 164 (61%) completed the pre- and post-meeting questionnaires, 56 (21%) declined to complete the questionnaires due to time constraints and 48 (18%) were already vaccinated. Among the 164, the median COVID-19 risk perception scores changed from 3 (neutral) pre-meeting to 5 (strong agreement with being at high risk) post-meeting ( p  < 0.001). Vaccine concern scores reduced, with medians changing from 4 (worried about vaccine side effects) pre-meeting to 2 (not worried) post-meeting ( p  < 0.001). Median scores regarding perceived COVID-19 vaccine benefits changed from 3 (neutral) pre-meeting to 5 (very beneficial) post-meeting ( p  < 0.001). The median scores for perceived vaccine access increased from 3 (neutral) pre-meeting to 5 (very accessible) post-meeting ( p  < 0.001). The median scores for willingness to receive the vaccine changed from 3 (neutral) pre-meeting to 5 (strong willingness) post-meeting ( p  < 0.001).

COVID-19 dialogue meetings led to district leaders’ increased risk perception, reduced concerns, and improvement in perceived vaccine benefits, vaccine access, and willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. These could potentially influence public vaccine uptake if leaders are vaccinated publicly as a result. Broader use of such meetings with leaders could increase vaccine uptake among themselves and the community.

Attaining high levels of COVID-19 vaccine uptake has been challenging globally [ 1 ]. This has been due in part to barriers to vaccine availability and distribution [ 2 , 3 ], and in part due to vaccine hesitancy [ 1 ]. Vaccine hesitancy slows vaccine uptake and may facilitate the emergence of viral variants [ 4 ]. In high-income countries, COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy has largely been linked to vaccine safety concerns, political influences, and mistrust and suspicion of vaccine manufacturers [ 5 – 7 ], while in most African countries, hesitancy has been linked to safety and effectiveness concerns [ 8 ]. Some vaccine hesitancy has been driven by social media, which has been used to spread misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines [ 9 , 10 ].

One way to improve vaccine uptake is to address misinformation and disinformation through effective risk communication. Risk communication is the real-time exchange of information, advice, and opinions between experts, community leaders, officials, and the people who are at risk and is an integral part of any emergency response [ 11 ]. Its major aim is to help the public appreciate the actual risk associated with a disease or event. Risk communication approaches include but are not limited to sensitization over mass media platforms like radios and television stations, utilization of opinion leaders [ 12 ], use of peers [ 12 , 13 ] and dialogues [ 14 , 15 ]. As a way of addressing misinformation related to COVID-19 and the vaccine and improving uptake, the World Health Organization called upon the global health community in 2020 to implement risk communication interventions about issues related to COVID-19 and the vaccine that engaged with, listened to, informed, and empowered people to make informed decisions to protect themselves and others [ 10 ].

The Uganda Ministry of Health began free vaccination against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in March 2021. The Astra-Zeneca vaccine was the only vaccine available in Uganda at the time and required two doses for full vaccination. Vaccination was initially offered to prioritized subpopulations, which included health workers, teachers, adults with comorbidities, and the elderly [ 16 ]. However, as of May 1, 2021, only about 355,000 (37%) of 964,000 vaccine doses that were received by the country had been administered, due at least in part to vaccine hesitancy [ 17 , 18 ].

Identifying locally-appropriate approaches to reduce hesitancy and improve COVID-19 vaccine uptake is critical to epidemic control [ 19 – 21 ]. A February 2021 study in Uganda suggested that public uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine would follow the uptake of vaccination among community leaders [ 22 ]. In May 2021, participatory community dialogue meetings about the vaccine were held with district leaders from Western Uganda. The purpose was to promote the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine among leaders and their communities by improving vaccine knowledge and dispelling myths. We assessed the effect of the meetings on district leaders’ COVID-19 risk perception, COVID-19 vaccine concerns, perceived COVID-19 vaccine benefits, perceived vaccine access, and willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Study setting

We conducted the meetings evaluation in 17 districts of Western Uganda (Fig.  1 ). As of 2021, an estimated 14% of the Ugandan population resided in the 17 districts [ 23 ]. Of the 41,975 COVID-19 cases reported nationally by 1 May 2021, 2,305 (5.5%) were reported in these 17 districts [ 24 ]. Despite the availability of free COVID-19 vaccines starting on March 10, 2021, only 20,358 (25%) of the 81,430 doses (including first and second doses) distributed to the 17 districts had been administered by 1 May 2021 [ 17 ].

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is 12889_2023_15903_Fig1_HTML.jpg

Districts of Western Uganda where community dialogue meetings on district leaders’ willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine were conducted, May 2021

Study design

We conducted a pre-post evaluation study in which we assessed district leaders’ perceptions of the risk of COVID-19, COVID-19 vaccine concerns, perceived COVID-19 vaccine benefits, perceived vaccine access, and their willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before and after the participatory community dialogue meetings conducted in May 2021. Written reference materials about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines were provided to attendees at the start of the meetings, and the same topics were discussed at all meetings.

Community dialogue description

Community dialogue is a forum that brings together people from different sections of society and creates an opportunity to exchange information, perspectives, clarify viewpoints, and develop solutions to issues of interest to society [ 25 – 27 ]. In this study, dialogue participants included political, technical, cultural, and religious leaders.

District leaders from multiple sectors of society were invited to the dialogue meetings in Western Uganda, including political leaders (the district local council five chairpersons, secretaries for health, district councilors, and resident district commissioners), technical leaders (chief administrative officers and district heads of departments such as health, education, planning, production, works, administration, human resources, and finance), district religious leaders from all prevalent faiths in Uganda, and cultural leaders. One community dialogue meeting was held in each of the 17 districts, and 14–21 district leaders from each district participated in the meetings. On average, each meeting lasted approximately four hours. A total of 268 district leaders from 17 districts participated in the meetings and were invited to participate in the evaluation assessment (Fig.  1 ).

After arrival and registration, participants completed a pre-meeting assessment questionnaire, followed by opening prayers, self-introductions, brief remarks by Baylor Uganda staff, and opening remarks by district health officers. Meetings were chaired and facilitated by district health educators (DHEs), who presented general information about COVID-19 (what it is, signs and symptoms, who is at risk of getting COVID-19, how one can be protected from contracting it), the types and availability of different COVID-19 vaccines in circulation, how the vaccines work, how they were developed, and why they were developed in a short time. The presentations were based on recent trainings for the DHEs given by Baylor Uganda on these topics.

The DHEs also talked about which type of COVID-19 vaccines are given to Ugandans, why those were the available vaccines, who were eligible to receive those vaccines (essential workers including the district leaders), and why they were eligible. Other topics included vaccine availability, cost (emphasizing that vaccines were free of charge), physical access to vaccines, administration, safety, effectiveness against COVID-19 infection and severe forms of COVID-19, common vaccine side effects, risks of serious reactions, and how to deal with them. DHEs also discussed personal health risks from COVID-19 and the consequences of not vaccinating.

After their presentations, DHEs encouraged participants to ask questions, raise points of concern, and discuss the answers amongst themselves with the guidance of DHEs and other technical professionals. After issues and concerns about the vaccines were discussed to participant’s satisfaction, DHEs summarized key messages and closed the meetings. Closing activities included the development of an action plan on how each participant would disseminate the information they received from the meeting to the community to promote vaccine uptake. Two trained staff members of Baylor Uganda served as rapporteurs during each meeting. Each leader was invited to complete the same evaluation questionnaire that was administered at the beginning of the meeting.

Questionnaire

We performed the assessment based on three of the most prominent health behavior theory constructs: the health belief model [ 28 ], the theory of planned behavior [ 29 ], and the extended parallel process model [ 30 ]. We used these theories to develop self-administered questionnaires to assess COVID-19 risk perception, vaccine concerns, perceived vaccine benefits, perceived vaccine access, and willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. For the five-point Likert scale questions, participants indicated 1 (strongly disagree), 2 (disagree), 3 (neither disagree nor agree), 4 (agree), or 5 (strongly agree).

Study variables

In the questionnaire, we also asked about sociodemographic factors, including the highest education level attained, presence of children aged < 5 years or persons ≥ 60 years at home, and district of work. We organized the questions into five categories: COVID-19 risk perception (subcategories: perceived susceptibility, perceived severity), COVID-19 vaccine concerns, perceived COVID-19 vaccine benefits (subcategories: perceived individual benefits, perceived community benefits/altruism), perceived COVID-19 vaccine access, and willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. We constructed composite scores by summing scores from multiple questions within a category or subcategory.

Data analysis

We analyzed the data using STATA Version 14.0. We described sociodemographic factors using frequencies and percentages. Likert scale data were ordinal and not normally distributed when tested for normality using the Shapiro–Wilk tests, so we used the nonparametric Wilcoxon signed-rank test to assess differences between pre- and post-dialogue scores within each category and subcategory [ 31 , 32 ]. We used Wilcoxon’s signed-rank test instead of the sign test because it has more statistical power [ 33 ]. Wilcoxon’s signed-rank test ranks the degree of change between the paired scores in addition to considering the degree of change measured by the sign test, providing more information for analysis [ 33 ].

To calculate the magnitude of the effect of the community dialogue meetings on each category and subcategory, we used Cliff’s delta measure (Cliff’s dominance measure), which is the accepted measure of effect size for the Wilcoxon signed-rank test [ 34 , 35 ], to calculate the effect sizes ( r ) of the changes [ 36 ]. It is obtained by subtracting the ratio of the negative rank-sum to the total rank-sum from that of the positive rank-sum to the total rank-sum [ 37 , 38 ]. The effect size ranges from 0 to 1, with 0 indicating that the groups are statistically equal and 1 implying that one group significantly dominates [ 37 , 38 ]. We graded the effect size as small ( r  = 0.1–0.3), medium ( r  = 0.4–0.5), and large ( r  = 0.6–1.0) for both positive and negative changes [ 36 ]. We also reported median frequencies, percentages, medians, and first and third quartiles, which we used to calculate interquartile ranges (IQRs) for both pre- and post-meeting assessments.

We also conducted Spearman’s correlation between willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and each category and subcategory to assess factors associated with willingness to receive COVID-19 vaccine. We only tested for correlations pre-meeting when willingness was normally distributed and before social desirability bias was introduced by the meeting. The Spearman correlation evaluates the monotonic relationship between two ordinal variables [ 39 ]. We also performed logistic regression to assess whether COVID-19 vaccine willingness was associated with the presence of children aged < 5 years or ≥ 60 years at home.

Final evaluation sample size

Among the 268 community dialogue meeting attendees, 164 (61%) filled out both pre- and post-meeting assessments. Forty-eight (18%) who had already been vaccinated and 56 (21%) who completed only the pre-meeting assessment due to time constraints were excluded from the analysis.

Sociodemographic characteristics of community dialogue participants

In total, 150 (92%) of the 164 district leaders who participated in the study had attained either a tertiary or university education; the rest had attained secondary or primary education. Most (118, 72%) were men (Table ​ (Table1 1 ).

Sociodemographic characteristics of community dialogue participants, Western Uganda, May 2021 ( N  = 164)

a A frontline worker who worked during the COVID-19 response, e.g., a health worker and a COVID-19 district task force member

COVID-19 risk perception, vaccine concerns, perceived vaccine benefits, perceived vaccine access, and willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine

The meetings were associated with positive changes in leaders’ perception of the risk of COVID-19 (Wilcoxon’s signed-rank test p  < 0.001, Cliff’s delta measure r  = 0.995), perceived COVID-19 vaccine benefits ( p  < 0.001, r  = 0.995), perceived COVID-19 vaccine access ( p  < 0.001, r  = 0.996), and willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine ( p  < 0.001, r  = 0.995). The meetings were also associated with a reduction in leaders’ concerns about COVID-19 vaccine safety and side effects ( p  < 0.001; r  = -0.960) (Table ​ (Table2, 2 , Fig.  2 ).

Effect of community dialogue meetings on district leaders’ COVID-19 risk perception, COVID-19 vaccine concerns, perceived COVID-19 vaccine benefits, perceived COVID-19 vaccine access, and willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Western Uganda, May 2021 ( N  = 164)

Median IQR of 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neither disagree nor agree, 4 = agree, or 5 = strongly agree

a p -values as per Wilcoxon’s signed-rank test

b Effect size (r) as per Cliff’s delta measure

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Object name is 12889_2023_15903_Fig2_HTML.jpg

Summary of the effect of community dialogue meetings on district leaders’ COVID-19 risk perception, COVID-19 vaccine concerns, perceived COVID-19 vaccine benefits, perceived COVID-19 vaccine access, and willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Western Uganda, May 2021 ( N  = 164)

Correlations between willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and the other categories and subcategories before the meetings

Pre-assessment, willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine was negatively correlated with COVID-19 vaccine concerns (Spearman’s rho ( ρ ) = -0.31, p  = 0.001) and positively correlated with COVID-19 risk perception ( ρ  = 0.66, p  < 0.001), perceived susceptibility ( ρ  = 0.70, p  < 0.001), and perceived COVID-19 severity ( ρ  = 0.69, p  < 0.001). It was also positively correlated with perceived vaccine benefits ( ρ  = 0.72, p  < 0.001), individual benefits ( ρ  = 0.75, p  < 0.001), and community benefits ( ρ  = 0.68, p  < 0.001), as well as perceived vaccine access ( ρ  = 0.81, p  < 0.001) (Table ​ (Table3 3 ).

Spearman’s correlation coefficients ( ρ ) between willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before the meetings and COVID-19 risk perception, vaccine concerns, vaccine benefits, and access before the meetings, Western Uganda, May 2021

a p -value as per Spearman’s correlation

Following a study in Uganda in early 2021 that suggested that community vaccine uptake would follow community leader vaccine uptake [ 22 ], we evaluated the use of dialogue meetings with district leaders to improve their willingness to receive COVID-19 vaccine. Community dialogue meetings with local leaders about the COVID-19 vaccine and the risk of COVID-19 disease in Western Uganda led to reduced concerns about COVID-19 vaccine safety and side effects, improvement in perceived vaccine benefits and access, increased COVID-19 risk perception, and increases in leaders’ willingness to receive COVID-19 vaccines. Willingness to receive COVID-19 vaccines was negatively correlated with COVID-19 vaccine concerns and positively correlated with COVID-19 risk perception, perceived benefits, and perceived vaccine access.

During the dialogue meetings, personal health risks from COVID-19, vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 infection and severe forms of COVID-19, and the consequences of not being vaccinated were discussed in depth. Additionally, access to vaccines, including knowing where to obtain vaccines and having economic and physical access to the vaccine, were also discussed. Designated vaccination areas were mentioned, and it was emphasized that the COVID-19 vaccines were free of charge and were to be given to prioritized subpopulations, such as the district leaders, first. We found that district leaders’ COVID-19 risk perception increased after the dialogue meetings, as did their perceptions about access to and the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine. Having a perception of risk associated with contracting COVID-19 is necessary for interest in taking the vaccine; people are unlikely to want to be vaccinated against something for which they feel they have little risk. Indeed, in our study, we found a positive association between COVID-19 risk perception and willingness to receive the vaccine, as well as between perceived vaccine access and benefits and willingness to receive the vaccine. Similarly, a study done in the US showed that messages emphasizing the personal health risks of COVID-19 and collective health consequences of not vaccinating significantly increased Americans’ perceived benefits and hence intentions to vaccinate [ 40 ]. In another study among mainland Chinese university students, students’ knowledge of the COVID-19 vaccine and risk perception of COVID-19 positively influenced their attitude toward the uptake of a COVID-19 vaccine [ 41 ]. Our findings are also consistent with those from a study carried out among Chinese factory workers which showed that perception of easy access to COVID-19 vaccines increased with a decrease in the cost of the vaccines [ 20 ].

However, the true level of risk associated with the vaccine itself also needed to be addressed. In Uganda, as in most African countries, the main concerns about COVID-19 vaccines were related to both vaccine effectiveness and vaccine safety: primarily the short time in which COVID-19 vaccines were developed, concerns about insufficient testing of vaccines, and potential side effects [ 8 ]. Our discussions with community leaders included a major component about vaccine safety and data supporting vaccine effectiveness and resulted in a decrease in district leaders’ concerns about the safety and side effects of COVID-19 vaccines after the meetings. A study carried out in the United States by Chu et al . showed that confidence in vaccine safety, increased disease risk perception, and increased perceived vaccine benefits were all major factors associated with increased willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccines [ 21 ].

Previous studies in Malawi, Tanzania, Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, and the United States have shown that community dialogue meetings can play vital roles in supporting or opposing health service utilization through the mobilization of community members [ 42 – 44 ]. For COVID-19 vaccines specifically, open and transparent dialogue and communication about uncertainty and risks, including around the safety and benefits of COVID-19 vaccination provided during community dialogue meetings, can ensure a shared understanding of the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination to each individual and the community as a whole [ 45 , 46 ]. Our findings are consistent with multiple other studies that have shown that the use of dialogues between health providers and communities and listening to and addressing people’s concerns about vaccine safety can be used to reduce concerns and distrust and improve interest in vaccination [ 47 – 49 ]. Our findings reiterate the need for actively promoting the effectiveness and importance of vaccination, while addressing concerns about vaccine safety in the public [ 50 ] when handling future outbreaks and emergencies.

We found community dialogue meetings to effectively reduce concerns about COVID-19 vaccine safety and side effects, improve perceptions about vaccine benefits and access, increase COVID-19 risk perception, and improve willingness to receive COVID-19 vaccines. Other forms of dialogues that can be used could include social media, such as Twitter or Facebook dialogues, and one-on-one dialogue meetings [ 9 , 51 , 52 ]. While most approaches to risk communication during emergencies – such as radio and television talk shows—often use a one-directional approach [ 52 , 53 ], these methods don’t allow for the public to share their concerns, and for these concerns to be addressed. Community dialogue meetings are two-way processes that involve clear message delivery by health experts to the community [ 53 ]. The two-way communication allows the public to share their concerns, and for these concerns to be addressed [ 52 ]. If done well, community dialogue meetings can facilitate public trust, confidence, and, importantly, compliance with the recommended behaviors [ 52 , 54 – 57 ]. Accordingly, when handling pandemics and emergencies in future, community dialogue meetings can be prioritized as vital risk communication methods.

Study limitations

Although we report changes in community leaders’ perceived risk, benefits, access, safety concerns and willingness to receive COVID-19 vaccines after the meetings, we do not know if the theoretical changes eventually led to vaccine uptake among leaders or among the general public.

Conclusions

The community leader dialogue meetings reported here led to district leaders’ increased COVID-19 risk perception, reduced concerns of COVID-19 vaccine safety and side effects, and improvement in perceived COVID-19 vaccine benefits, perceived vaccine access, and willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. These improvements might influence public uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines if leaders get vaccinated publicly and share their vaccination status and what they learned during dialogue meetings. Broader use of community leader dialogue meetings as a way of reducing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and increasing uptake, in addition to other methods like the use of opinion leaders to encourage vaccine acceptability and mass media platforms such as radio and television talk shows, may be considered. Scaling up community dialogue meetings to involve community members might also increase vaccine uptake.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the district leaders who spared time to participate in the pre-post meeting assessments out of their very busy schedules. Last but not least, our deepest gratitude goes to the administration of Baylor Uganda for allowing us to carry out this study even when it was inconvenient for their meeting participants.

The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Abbreviations

Authors’ contributions.

E.J.N. took the lead in conceptualizing the study idea, data analysis, writing, and editing the manuscript. A.G.F. participated in the conceptualization of the study idea, data analysis, and writing the manuscript. A.K., T.D.O., D.K., L.B., B.K., P.J.E., A.R.A., and J.R.H. participated in the conceptualization of the study idea and editing and reviewing of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript for publication.

The dialogue meetings were funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, through Baylor Uganda, and the materials used in the facilitation of the meetings were developed by the Ministry of Health, Uganda. This assessment was supported by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Cooperative Agreement number {"type":"entrez-nucleotide","attrs":{"text":"GH001353","term_id":"213777825","term_text":"GH001353"}} GH001353 –01 through Makerere University School of Public Health to the Uganda Public Health Fellowship Program, Ministry of Health. The contents of this article are exclusively the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Makerere University School of Public Health, Baylor Uganda, or the Ministry of Health Uganda.

Availability of data and materials

Declarations.

This assessment was in response to a public health emergency. The Ministry of Health gave the directive and approval to evaluate the effect of the dialogue meetings on the leader’s willingness to receive COVID-19 vaccines. The Office of the Associate Director for Science, CDC/Uganda and the U.S. CDC human subjects review determined that this activity was not human subjects research. Its primary intent was public health practice and epidemic disease control. This activity was reviewed by CDC and was conducted consistent with applicable federal law and CDC policy. §§See e.g., 45 C.F.R. part 46, 21 C.F.R. part 56; 42 U.S.C. §241(d); 5 U.S.C. §552a; 44 U.S.C. §3501 et seq. All experimental protocols were approved by the US CDC human subjects review board and the Uganda Ministry of Health and have been performed in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki.

Written informed consent was sought from the respondents. All respondents were informed that their participation was voluntary and that their refusal would not result in any negative consequences. To protect the confidentiality of the respondents, each was assigned a unique identifier.

Not applicable.

The authors declare no competing interests.

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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The (s)mashing update you always asked for!

Imagine being a potato. Now imagine being the potato’s less popular sibling who didn’t inherit the tuber-licious looks the rest of your family possesses. What’s worse is – you're facing the impossible decision of what to do with all this starch? Since neither French fries nor couch potato sat right with you, there's only one option remaining. Congratulations friend, you’re a poisonous potato. 

For years, Minecraft’s own toxic tuber has been neglected and underappreciated, lacking both purpose and usefulness. For years, you – the community – tried to highlight this, working tirelessly to bring it to our attention and literally begging us for more functionality. As of today, your concerns are a thing of the past. 

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GET THE SNAPSHOT UPDATE 

Snapshots are available for Minecraft: Java Edition. To install the snapshot, open up the Minecraft Launcher and enable snapshots in the "Installations" tab. You can even play the snapshot on your own Java Realms together with your friends! 

Remember, snapshots can corrupt your world, so please back up your world and/or run the snapshot in a different folder from your main worlds.  

-> DOWNLOAD THE CROSS-PLATFORM SERVER JAR

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  • Added the frying table – everyone asked for it, so we added it. It fries potato things. It's a really nice model! 
  • Added functionality to the fletching table. You can now fletch toxic resin into more refined versions of the resin. 
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WHAT CAN I EXPECT IN TERMS OF GAMEPLAY?  

Poisonous potatoes. We hope this article has made that perfectly clear. 

I DON’T BELIEVE I ASKED FOR THIS UPDATE, IF I’M HONEST. 

You might not have – but your brain (or maybe belly) did! 

ARE THERE CURRENTLY ANY OTHER CARB-BASED UPDATES IN THE WORKS? 

Great question! Please look forward to the Radioactive Rice Update and Toxic Taro Update in the very distant future! 

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The two sides of Guyana: a green champion and an oil producer

Camila Domonoske square 2017

Camila Domonoske

Emily Kwong, photographed for NPR, 6 June 2022, in Washington DC. Photo by Farrah Skeiky for NPR.

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Sea levels in Guyana are rising several times faster than the global average. High tides sometimes spill over the seawall that is meant to protect the coastline. Ryan Kellman/NPR hide caption

Sea levels in Guyana are rising several times faster than the global average. High tides sometimes spill over the seawall that is meant to protect the coastline.

For Guyana the potential wealth from oil development was irresistible — even as the country faces rising seas. Today on the show, host Emily Kwong talks to reporter Camila Domonoske about her trip to Guyana and how the country is grappling with its role as a victim of climate change while it moves forward with drilling more oil. (encore)

For more of Camila's reporting and pictures from her visit, check out " Guyana is a poor country that was a green champion. Then Exxon discovered oil ."

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