Six months ago, you may not have known what an epidemiologist was.
For those fixed to the daily cycle of coronavirus updates, there’s a pretty good chance you know some of them by name.
In the wake of the global pandemic, public health experts have found their profession in the spotlight.
Each day, they’re asked to contextualise and explain the intricacies of a virus we still know little about, to an uncertain public desperate for answers.
So how have their own lives changed? And did they see the writing on the wall?
‘I’ve done a lot of the cliches’
Hassan Vally is a leading epidemiologist at La Trobe University in Victoria
Dr Vally was working in his “normal academic role” until about six weeks ago, when he was asked to step up and assist with the Government’s response to outbreaks in the aged care sector.
“I’ve had to go into an office more than what I had to do before,” he laughs.
Like most people, Dr Vally’s routine has been uprooted. He wears a mask, avoids public transport, plans his trips to the shops more strategically, and with gyms still closed, has been forced to get more creative with his exercise.
“I’ve done a lot of the cliches — I’ve got my bike working again,” he says.
But one of the biggest challenges has been grappling with the social toll of coronavirus restrictions.
Dr Vally lives alone and says the impact on those like him “wasn’t really considered”.
For the epidemiologist, it’s the simple things he misses most.
Prior to the pandemic, Dr Vally took Latin dancing lessons — a hobby that “right from the very beginning brings you into close contact with strangers”.
“I don’t know how long it’ll be before people can do those simple things that are part of being a human,” he says.
‘It’s an important professional obligation’
Mary-Louise McLaws is an epidemiologist and member of the World Health Organization Experts Advisory Panel on COVID-19.
Like many public health experts, her workload has only grown under the global pandemic.
“I must have had some clairvoyance in January because I bought a rowing machine,” she laughs.
“While I’ve been telling people gyms aren’t the safest places to be at the moment, I think my gym in the corner of the room is feeling a little neglected.”
Professor McLaws lives in Sydney, where the use of face masks isn’t mandatory.
But she makes a point of wearing one in shopping centres, on public transport and in lifts.
“Even though they give you the little spots to stand on, it’s really not far enough away with very little airflow,” she says.
While you’re unlikely to find Professor McLaws Latin dancing anytime soon (“That’s more of a hobby for an infectious disease physician,” she quips), in light of her burgeoning workload, she’s found herself unable to attend “real sculpting” classes.
Like many, Professor McLaws is feeling the effects of the pandemic. The days are long, she says, and maintaining contact with friends can be difficult.
But she is passionate about her job, and is ever conscious of the need to be on the front-foot of misinformation.
“Previously I haven’t been very good at talking to the press because I’ve been too busy with my other work,” she says.
“But during COVID one feels obliged to help the population explain what they’re going through and why they’re doing it and to remove misinformation.
“I feel that it’s an important professional obligation.”
‘It wouldn’t have been socially acceptable before’
Lidia Morawska is an internationally recognised air quality and health expert from the Queensland University of Technology.
She is also one of 239 scientists from 32 different countries who penned an open letter urging the WHO to change its advice around airborne transmission of the virus.
It should come as little surprise then, that she was on the front foot of mask wearing and social distancing even prior to the pandemic.
“When the grandkids came around, I was catching colds from them all the time,” she says.
“I very quickly learned how to prevent this… There were situations at home when I was sick and I said, ‘Well, I’m wearing a mask’.”
In the workplace, Professor Morawska says, the protocols are just as stringent.
Before the myriad of public health advice, they were conscious of ventilation.
“If somebody had a cold or something like this, we would place this person in a location… where they would be next to the air exhaust, not impacting other people,” she says.
“It wouldn’t have been socially acceptable before to tell a student, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t talk to you because you have a cold, come back in three days’.”
A lot of science around airborne transmission of the virus “has been ignored”, Professor Morawska says.
To that end, she hopes the broader public will embrace these precautionary measures, even after case numbers decline.
“I’m in a good situation in that I’m the boss,” she says. “But there are many people who are telling their bosses, this should be done, but the bosses don’t listen.
‘If we’re not doing those things, it’s really hard to convince other people to’
Paul Griffin is an infectious diseases physician and microbiologist at the University of Queensland.
As one of those involved in trying to manage the response to coronavirus, Dr Griffin is all too aware of the need to be proactive.
“All the things we’ve been telling everyone to do, I’ve been doing myself,” he says.
That means paying close attention to hand hygiene and social distancing, Dr Griffin says, and trading meals out for take away.
And while he personally didn’t wear a mask until it became mandatory at work, he says the use of face masks in the community “has a time and a place”.
“But given our local epidemiology and the fact that I adhere to social distancing and hygiene, I don’t wear a mask routinely in the community, but certainly at work,” he says.
For Dr Griffin, travel restrictions have proven one of the biggest challenges.
But he believes it’s a small price to pay if it means containing the virus.
“I used to travel a lot to watch sport, I love travelling to see the Brisbane Lions play in other states and that was a big part of my winter months every year,” he says.
“But we have to keep in mind in our country and our state how good our response has been and how excellent the control is.
“So our inability to travel is a small price to pay.”