Experts are humans, too: Hans Jørn Kolmos
In this interview series, we get to know four researchers better. They are experts on COVID-19 and diligently used by the media with everything it entails. But they’re perfectly ordinary people, too.
Hans Jørn Kolmos
Age: 72 years
Areas of research: Clinical microbiology and infection hygiene.
Among other things known from the following media: All nationwide Danish TV channels, such as TV2 News and most regional broadcasters. All major Danish newspapers and online media.
Hobby(s): Overall, I’m interested in the environment, climate and culture. More specifically, I’m an active beekeeper and amateur archaeologist. I enjoy classical music, books, art and architecture – both new and old, as long as the quality is top-notch.
Why are you featured in the media?
Through a long working life with clinical microbiology and infection hygiene, I have gained expert knowledge on dealing with infectious diseases and pandemics. I think that knowledge obligates, and therefore I agreed to volunteer when the pandemic came knocking at our doors, even though I had actually retired from my position as chief physician at OUH.
I quickly learned that the best way for me to help was by advising and disseminating health professional knowledge of corona issues to the media and authorities. I’m still employed at SDU as a part-time professor. Professionally, it goes well with the media work, but it is time consuming, so I don’t have room for much else right now. I look forward to leading a quieter life when we – hopefully – get corona under control soon.
How do you relate to ongoing discussions, e.g. on social media?
I'm not even on social media like Facebook and Twitter. Most of all because I can’t spare the time, but also because I think the messages tend to be superficial and the debate tone is harsh. However, I do recognise that social media play a role in communicating knowledge about the corona pandemic if conducted under the right auspices.
I’ve participated in several problem pages and chat forums on DR and TV2, which I believe has led to useful knowledge for the benefit of all parties. I still enjoy doing that. My job is to contribute knowledge so that the messages become truthful and of real help to people in a difficult time full of fake news and conspiracy theories.
In fact, we haven’t given much thought to hygiene in recent years. But at the beginning of the pandemic, we suddenly found ourselves in a situation where hygiene was absolutely crucial – in fact the only weapon we could muster.
What responsibility do you feel for the way your statements are used?
As a society, we have forgotten how contagious microorganisms can be. In fact, we haven’t given much thought to hygiene in recent years. But at the beginning of the pandemic, we suddenly found ourselves in a situation where hygiene was absolutely crucial – in fact the only weapon we could muster.
As hygiene is my area of expertise, I feel a great responsibility to communicate the messages about hygiene to the population and, of course, get people to do the right thing in a completely no-nonsense way.
Specifically, I make sure to know the context by discussing the content of the interviews with the electronic media beforehand. The same applies to the print media, where I insist on fact-checking the text before the interview goes to press. This can be quite laborious, but ultimately crucial to getting everyone to understand the problem and do the right thing.
In the summer months, I relax with my bees. They are very sensitive to stress, so if you don’t force yourself to unwind and find some calm and balance, the bees will teach you the hard way.
What do you do when you want to disconnect from the COVID-19 media exposure?
In the summer months, I relax with my bees. They are very sensitive to stress, so if you don’t force yourself to unwind and find some calm and balance, the bees will teach you the hard way. If you do things right, the dialogue with the bees, in turn, provides some amazing experiences that you can live on for a long time.
In the winter, I enjoy long walks, where I try to contemplate how we can move on with climate and environmental issues, which are knocking at our doors louder and louder. In my opinion, we should view the COVID-19 pandemic as a symptom that there are things in our society that we will have to rectify to avoid ending up in similar situations again.
If you had to come up with one piece of good advice for others who want to take on the role of an expert, what would it be?
It can be a tedious task if you want to do things properly. If you want to stick to it in the long run, it’s probably important that you set limits for your participation and create some free space. I'm pretty bad at it myself, but I’m practicing at getting better at it.
Stay in control of your participation by being aware from the start what you are getting involved in. Your statements should be as brief and precise as possible. Also, insist on be allowed to check your facts, so that neither you nor others get confused about what you actually said.
Everything we do has an impact on others. That realisation is a good starting point for the difficult conversation about why I should impose restrictions on myself in my free expression.
You’ve had a massive presence in the media. How has it affected you?
You find yourself getting sucked into the maelstrom of corona news and naturally get involved more. It can be stressful to be on camera or in the media all the time, but you also get fired up, because academically and scientifically it’s extremely exciting to be in the middle of a real pandemic; a situation you’ve otherwise only read about in textbooks.
You also become someone people recognise on the street. It takes some getting used to. I look forward to returning to anonymity when we finally manage to quash the pandemic.
In your opinion, what will it take for us to have a better collective conversation about COVID-19?
That we realise that we must solve this task together as a society. It goes against the spirit of the times, but there isn’t much room for solo performances. Everything we do has an impact on others. That realisation is a good starting point for the difficult conversation about why I should impose restrictions on myself in my free expression and what I need to do to make things turn out for the best. It's a bit like a war situation – only without weapons.
Photo: Lars Skaaning