Intermission: The Bargaining of Science and Economy in Times of Covid-19
(This Covid Intermission Article (CIA) is part 2 of a TMAG mini series. Click here for Part 1: On Wearing a Mask During a Pandemic)
The intended workflow of science and politics
The current Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented in modern times. We need to understand it as soon as possible to be able to react to it. Naturally, the persons that investigate the medical details of such a situation are the scientists: Virologists, epidemiologists, and other scientists. And of course, the people to implement the changes suggested by the scientists are our elected politicians. Politicians can only react sensibly if they are provided with good information from the scientists. They alone cannot make these calls and that is precisely what they need scientists for. This workflow is pretty simple and it is not new. Scientific advisors for political leaders have been known for hundreds of years, although they may have had different names back in the day. Just as an example: In the US, former President Abraham Lincoln was a big science champion and he supported the aforementioned workflow. He created a system of colleges and universities as well as chartering the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1863. The mission was straightforward: Establish higher education and scientific foundations to help make sound political decisions. This workflow still applies today. More often than not the collaboration of science and politics is fruitful. But during this pandemic, the workflow is increasingly hampered by political partisanship, lobbying interests (see Who is spreading misinformation and why?), anti-science sentiments, and general distrust, pure and simple. All of the mentioned obstacles are extremely multi-layered and cannot be traced back to a single source. I will try and give some clues by first regarding how the initial response to the Covid-19 situation was and why this caused confusion.
While the spread of Covid-19 slowly evolved from an epidemic to a pandemic (around March 2020), the scientific institutions were doing a lot of extra hours to answer the pressing questions: How is the virus transmitted, how can we prevent the further spread, who is at particular high risk upon infection, what are the symptoms and how can they be relieved, what is the gene sequence of the virus, can we develop a vaccine against it... the list seems endless. And many of the questions remain unanswered until today. Especially in the beginning of the pandemic it seemed difficult for scientific institutions to provide enough information that can make the broad public feel more secure. This may be one of the flaws but also features of science: They do not blast out recommendations as soon as they have an idea of how something might work. No. Hypotheses need to be build, checked carefully, results produced and reproduced... this is not a fast process. But of course politicians were in a big hurry to present answers for the scared public. Given this scenario it is far from surprising that not every measure taken and not every piece of advise was perfectly correct or necessary. This has lead to some confusion among people and distrust that is still present in parts of the population. That sentiment may be a tad bit unfair if one thinks that the overall leadership by the World Health Organisation as well as the national scientific institutions (like the Robert-Koch-Institut here in Germany) was mostly accurate. I want to emphasise again that this pandemic is unprecented in modern times and the answers to above questions are not written in any text books. They need to be explored. This has happened and the advise was given to the politicians around the world.
The scientific advise and what politicians made of it
One of the most important discoveries was that the virus was mainly transmitted airborne. So keeping your distance to other people is a good idea, as well as preventing to openly sneeze or be sneezed at. No hugging, and keeping your hands clean (wash with soap regularly and for at least 30 seconds). Where you cannot avoid being close to people, wear a mask (yes, over mouth AND nose). Crowds should be avoided, so no parties or football games or crammed supermarkets. As additional measures they recommended as much testing as possible, preparing as many ICU beds and ventilators as possible, and tracing the infected persons to find other possibly sick people. Some governments starting implementing these measures quickly and vigorously (like South Korea and Germany). Others chose not to follow the scientific recommendations to not damage their economy (like Brazil). Of course they do not name economic reasons for their doing, but rather attack the alarmist science and their overreaction in the situation. The number of infected people in each country pretty much reflects how well the governments implemented the scientific recommendations.
One particularly peculiar case is (once more) that of the United States of America. In a country that is so extremely divided on basically all questions of modern life people are being torn in one of the two directions. The Republican President Trump has mismanaged the pandemic from the very beginning. After calling it a Democratic hoax, a simple flu, or something that will just simply go away in the summer breeze, he completely slept when he should have acted. Since the virus didn't just disappear in thin air and since Mr Trump is stubborn as a mule, he politicised the whole pandemic. He claimed that Democrats will destroy this nation's economy by closing down all businesses without a need ("it's just a flu!"). Whilst still mostly denying the gravity of the situation, the Republican party seems to follow Trump and his anti-science stance. It resulted in a situation in which American states with Democratic governors were following the scientific recommendations much more closely than the states with Republican governors. At the same time, wearing a mask became a political statement: Democrats wear masks, Republicans do not (please be aware that this is a simplification I am presenting; nevertheless, it is not far from reality). A nice summary about this absurd scenario can be read here: Disunited states of America: responses to coronavirus shaped by hyper-partisan politics. An overview of the states, the measures, and the consequences is here: State data and policy actions.
Science vs Economy - a quarrel as old as time
It was not the first time that the Trump administration has taken an openly anti-science stance. Press secretary McEnany explicitly said that "the science should not stand in the way" of re-opening schools. She tried to save this slip by emphasising that of course the science is on their side and she quoted a single cherry-picked scientist that followed her narrative. Yet she ignored all the other scientists that explicitly and loudly proclaim that opening schools is an immense risk. But keeping them closed would leave the economy in tatters... in an election year this is a disaster! Trump had to choose between keeping his job or saving lives. Apparently the former seems to outweigh the latter. And this mishandling of the pandemic response is very apparent in the infection rates of the United States. And this is not simply a case of increased testing, like the president would like to have it. If you are a Republican in the United States (and about half of US citizens are), then you need to find a way to cope with the actions of your party. I am explicitly not putting all the blame on Trump himself, because nearly the whole GOP is following him like mindless sheep without showing hesitation to jump on the anti-science train.
But doesn't this all sound familiar? A partisan quarrel, lobbying and self-interests, economic decision making, a ludicrous division of science into "mainstream science" and "alternative science". Now I know where I heard that one before... it is the battle of climate science all over again. The topic may be a different one, but... the playbook is the same, the players are the same (to a certain degree), the spread and nature of misinformation are the same. And it's the same people that fall for it... people that roam around in their climate science denier bubble are very likely to also fall for covid science denial. The link between the two crises is apparent and has plentily been reviewed (see wired, the World Economic Forum, and Phys.org for starters). In both cases, science is attacked with the help of the very same playbook that was introduced by the tobacco lobby in the 1980s. The sown distrust in inconvenient science has just recently caused hundreds of scientists to write an open letter on the National Academy of Sciences to restore science-based policies in the US government. Scientists grow more and more frustrated and despaired with an US administration that does not seek their counsel for their policies - or they simply ignore the recommendations. Same for climate science as for covid science.
The economy seems to be a more important player than human lives in this game. And it becomes all the more apparent when you watch how the American President starts mumbling in-cohesively as soon as he is confronted with and asked about scientific content (just seen in the interview with Jonathan Swan). He simply is not able to understand the easiest scientific questions, but this does not matter to him. Science does not matter to him. And if we as a society reach a point where independent science does not matter anymore, we can also bid our farewell to democracy. It will not necessarily be true anymore that 1 and 1 equals 2. It will depend on viewpoints and economic considerations and which political party you prefer. Maybe 1 and 1 will equal 3 then, or cake. Who knows? However, it has become apparent how twisting scientific truths is happening more and more frequently. This is one of the reasons I am writing this blog. And how this distrust in scientific and political elites has emerged in the age of the internet will be the topic of the last Covid intermission post.
Picture references: cottonbro, Chloe Evans, The Guardian, Cranky Uncle, respectively