Politics has become part of the pandemic discourse. In the United States of America, anybody against a lockdown is identified as a Donald Trump supporter because he has opposed the lockdown. We are not sure yet whether the virus was man-made in a Wuhan laboratory and that it escaped accidentally. Similarly, we are not sure why China delayed the announcement, and what exactly transpired between the Chinese government and the World Health Organization. The latter changed its stance a number of times before finally declaring a medical emergency. The images of the Chinese government and the WHO have been tarnished. The two most vocal critics of the WHO are Trump and Bolsonaro. Both have, for all practical purposes, denied the existence of the pandemic despite the wide spread of the disease in their own nations.
Medical researchers are in a hectic race to find any one of the three following things: an existing medication that works, even if partially; a new drug that cures; or a vaccine that prevents. Obviously, in the context of a global pandemic, the potential profits from such discoveries are enormously high. The efficacy or otherwise of the well-known drug, hydroxychloroquine, is an example of the tangling of science, business and politics. Trump suddenly claimed that this drug could cure Covid-19. India obliged with a large supply of the very cheap drug used for treating malaria. Soon after that, there was a plethora of research projects and public announcements by medical associations and even by the WHO. A few claimed that there was some reason to believe that it might work in at least mitigating some of the clinical symptoms. Others claimed it was useless or it might even turn out to be harmful if prescribed.
A big event occurred in the first week of June. One of the most respected medical journals in the world, The Lancet, withdrew an article that had claimed that hydroxychloroquine was not effective in the treatment of Covid-19. The article had been apparently published within five weeks of submission, an astonishingly small time period for the process of peer review. The reason for withdrawal was that the data on which the study was conducted were unreliable, possibly fake. A question lingers about the hurried publication and its withdrawal. If a new molecule is found that could create a drug for the disease, then it would be far more profitable if no existing cheap drug already existed that could contribute to the treatment. Big firms in the pharmaceutical industry can manipulate research to their own advantage. Profits and politics have clearly revealed their presence in the world of objective science and research.
Like religion, the belief in science has been eroded. In our own humdrum life, however, we continue to look upon both with awe, but now with a bit of scepticism. It is the State that controls the rules of everyday living. The real danger of such a situation is that it can quickly turn into a deep, unquestioning faith in a strong leader who promises that all will soon be well.
The author is former professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta
There is a widely-held belief that scientific research is free from the power play of politics and the greed of big business. There is another popular belief that religious faith is more powerful than science. Science is supposed to be evidence-based, and its theories are falsifiable. A theory is taken to be the truth until continuous testing of its propositions against evidence proves it is false. Something new is added to the stock of scientific knowledge. Another theory becomes the truth. Religion, unlike science, rests on a fixed set of practices and beliefs based on ancient texts that guide us about the rules of everyday living. The stability of tradition, rather than new-found knowledge, is the pivot of religion. Science, on the other hand, develops objectively and keeps adding to the stock of knowledge of the universe as well as knowledge about our own selves. Each set of beliefs often interrogates the other. In this context, there are everyday dilemmas that most of us compromise on. For instance, a doctor performs a prayer before going in for surgery; a housewife who goes to the temple daily is careful not to drink the holy water given to her by the priest fearing infection. There is another set of arguments carried out at the philosophical level regarding whether god exists or not, representing a power beyond our ken. Both these beliefs have been shaken by the pandemic and the fear that it has generated.
If we consider the popular belief in religion and the everyday rituals that religion prescribes, then the pandemic has pushed much of those to the back-burner. Even the Indian government, deeply convinced about the essential religiosity of the nation, has banned religious gatherings and meetings in all places of worship. The priests and the holy men were cut off from their congregations or, at best, connected virtually. God’s abode was not believed to be free from SARS-CoV2. The holy men were waiting for science to eradicate the disease before they resumed their preaching. People relied on scientific advice for everyday practices like staying at home, maintaining social distance, wearing masks, and being extra-careful with vulnerable people having pre-existing medical conditions. In the world of today’s pandemic, religion has become an academic debate at best. This is not to argue that religious practices will become obsolete. The fear that the pandemic has generated is bound to weaken the firmness of religious faith, leading people to pray to god as well as listen to science.
Is science then the emerging new god? It is far from reaching that pedestal yet. In the contemporary world, the proliferation of information and research findings throw up contradictory data. This has become very obvious during the run of the pandemic since everybody is interested in knowing more about the disease, how it spreads, its symptoms and, above all, the possibility of a cure, or even better, the invention of a preventive vaccine. There are so many parallel narratives about the disease. Some medical professionals claim that before abating the disease could take millions of lives, stretch healthcare services, and produce massive collateral damage where people with other ailments would find medical care scarce and expensive.
Others — equally reputed doctors and researchers — believe that the world is overreacting, and although infective, Covid-19 is not much worse than the ordinary seasonal flu. The lockdown, according to them, is too costly from the point of view of economic damage. According to them, there ultimately has to be a herd immunity acquired by society after a large percentage of the global population has been infected before the pandemic recedes. The fatality rate is supposed to be minuscule if one omits the part of the population above 65 years of age and having co-morbidities like hypertension, high blood sugar or asthma. For the rest of the population, it has been claimed in a talk by a famous Stanford researcher, the probability of dying from Covid-19 is as small as the probability of getting killed in a car crash driving back home from work.