University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker has become one of New Zealand’s most recognisable faces.
He has been a prolific commentator on the Covid-19 pandemic and crisis and is interviewed by national and international TV networks, radio stations, newspapers , magazines and online websites on a daily basis.
He has also written extensively about the virus on blogs and in scientific journals and delivered public talks.
So, it was a case of having to look twice when The News saw that oh-so-familiar face and distinctive black framed glasses in the front row nodding up and down in time to the music of the Chills in concert at the Festival of Colour in Wanaka.
The Professor of Public Health, director of the Health Environment Infection Research Unit and leader of Co-Search, a Health Research Council funding group conducting multi-disciplinary research to support the Covid-19 response, was having a few hours of down time in Wanaka.
He had been invited by the Wanaka branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Aparangi to give a talk about why New Zealand chose an elimination response rather than a mitigation strategy to the pandemic, as well as the importance of effective science communication, managing misinformation and disinformation.
His wife Katie Baker was coming to Wanaka with a Wellington Festival group to attend the Festival of Colour so ‘‘it was a happy coincidence’’, Professor Baker said.
Both had also attended the early Saturday morning Aspiring Conversation talks ‘‘Participating in our democracy’’ and ‘‘Tax is love’’.
‘‘The two great challenges on display here, one is dealing with inequality and the other is trying to achieve a fairer society.’’
There is another that is closely related to that and it is climate change, he said.
‘‘What we have learned about Covid is that it will be a short shock.’’
In real terms it will last a few years, but inequality and climate change will not, he said.
‘‘Inequality has been rising for decades, it is clearly not sustainable within New Zealand and globally we are locking in climate changes that will be irreversible and effects that will last for decades, perhaps centuries.
‘‘Everyone knows that, it is just whether we are prepared to make some hard choices and the thing that encourages me is that New Zealand has showed with Covid-19 a single-minded determination of courageous leadership, looking at the evidence and then mobilising the country.’’
So why not question inequality, climate change and sustainability, Prof Baker said.
Earlier the same week he had been awarded the 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize .
He had done more than 2000 interviews since January 2020 and contributed over 30% of the total science outputs recorded for the 70 commentators tracked by the Science Media Centre.
He said his 10-year-old daughter and his two grown-up children no longer reacted when he was on TV, and they were used to TV crews being in their living room and the phone ringing in the middle of the night.
Sitting at his computer, he could be talking live to 50 million people for five minutes and then the phone rang and it was the local radio station with about five listeners and he would talk for up to 15 minutes.
‘‘To some extent it is all the same, your message has to be accurate, it has to be scientifically based and you have to have a point of view.
‘‘After that it was a case of trying to make it vivid, real and understandable for everyone,’’ he said.
Being the go-to person for the media has not changed him except he was now ‘‘a lot more confident talking with every conceivable form of media’’.
Being recognised had also brought some personal rewards.
‘‘The idea that a person will say ‘hi’ and ‘thanks’ and that they actually feel that you might have made some sort of actual difference for them is really good to know.
‘‘Also I think it is great that scientists are seen as making a difference, which is pretty unusual, but I am always a bit bewildered when they do selfies with you, I am sure the novelty is going to wear off.’’
Professor Baker has barely had a weekend or night off in more than a year but had given The News an hour-and-a-half of his time over coffee at a Wanaka cafe, but then he suddenly realised the next show he had booked to see at the Festival of Colour was about to start and he was gone.
What about that selfie?
Familiar face . . . University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker was in Wanaka recently talking about why New Zealand chose a Covid-19 elimination response rather than a mitigation strategy.
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