Meet the man behind the Media Maven

Photo of Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake COVID19, media, advice, vaccine, masks, lockdown,
26 October 2020

By Barb Corapi

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, I'd turn on the TV each morning to learn new information about the mysterious virus sweeping the globe. On one of those mornings I saw a familiar face.

“I’ve met that doctor!” I excitedly announced to my family.

Since that day, Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake from the ANU Medical School has appeared so frequently in my living room and on my social media feeds that such announcements hardly seem necessary.

With his friendly demeanour and genuine enthusiasm, he has been a voice of information, and reason, in a time of great uncertainty and anxiety.

“If you’d asked me in January if we’d still be discussing COVID-19 nine months later, I would have said ‘no’," he tells me. "It has been a crazy whirlwind of activity, especially with the media.”

“Prior to the pandemic, my role as a clinician at Canberra Hospital was quite busy. COVID has added a new level of complexity.”

In between seeing patients and teaching students, Associate Professor Senanayake provides clinical and infection control advice to Canberra Hospital and the Territory in his role as COVID-19 lead in the Division of Medicine at Canberra Hospital.

Of course, COVID-19 has also seen him frequent our media channels including The Today Show, Sunrise, Sky News, The Conversation and many, many other media outlets nationally and internationally.

“Medicine has given me so many opportunities. I love to communicate and educate. I’m pleased I can combine my knowledge and my communication skills to keep people informed and calm.”

Having watched and read many of his media interviews, I’m aware that Associate Professor Senanayake is quizzed on many aspects of COVID-19: from the public health implications of using masks to his views on the Victorian lockdown; his insights on medical information through to questions about the elusive vaccine. You name it, he’s received a question about it. So, how does he stay on top of all the details?

“I spend time preparing. I read all the research and I formulate my own analysis. I need to keep abreast of what’s happening nationally and internationally.”

When asked about how he deals with curly questions, Associate Professor Senanayake advises, “If I don’t know the answer I’ll say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’ll find out for you’.”

“When the pandemic first started I was asked how long the virus can last on a hard surface. At that time there was no evidence to provide that answer, so I was upfront and said I don’t know as yet.”

“This is a new virus.  Even the experts don’t fully understand it. Over the months we’ve learned a lot but there’s more to learn. I want the public to know they can trust what I’m saying. Providing commentary based on evidence is the key to building that trust.”

As our interview comes to an end, Associate Professor Senanayake encourages me to contact him should I have any other questions, which doesn’t surprise me at all. I can confidently confirm that the smiling, informative and knowledgeable persona you see on your television screens is the real deal.