Science and politics

What can science tell us about Covid? What should politicians decide, and what else should influence them? How are politicians helping, and how making the situation worse?

When the first casualties were dying of a new kind of pneumonia in Wuhan, science had a body of settled knowledge which would help humanity through the pandemic. This included knowledge about the immune, circulatory and respiratory systems, an understanding of what a virus was, how epidemiology could track an illness, how studies could give evidence of the effectiveness of treatments, how to assess evidence, and how to create and test vaccines, including a new kind of vaccine first used on covid. There was engineering knowledge of how to build ventilators and PPE, and medical knowledge of how to treat patients. There was behavioural science on how people might respond to the disease and to rules to combat it, and economic theory on how to mitigate the economic effects. By contrast the virus that caused the 1918 influenza pandemic was not discovered until the 1930s.

Scientists then began amassing useful knowledge about the pandemic. The virus’ genome was sequenced, and mutations have been sequenced since. Precise mutations can help show whence the virus is spreading. Studies showed how long viral DNA might last on particular surfaces, but also that infection via surfaces was rare, unlike with rhinoviruses. Infection was more likely through virions in aerosols or droplets exhaled. Tests were developed to test for current infection, or for past infection by testing for antibodies.

Common symptoms were found early: a fever, and a continual cough. Less common symptoms were documented later. Knowledge of how covid can affect people is growing.

Apps could show where people had been and when they might have had contact with an infectious person. There were the phones to run those apps, and the skills to write them.

Whether we should attempt to achieve herd immunity through mass infection is a moral issue. It is not acceptable to infect so many as would be necessary, when 1% of those infected die.

The rest is politics. Whether schools should be closed to restrict the spread of the virus is a matter of weighing different interests against each other. What businesses should close, and which remain open, is a political decision.

In London in December, people could go to the gym or the pub. That seems too risky to me, with people panting for breath, or talking loudly, and so spreading the virus, but it is a political decision to allow dangerous businesses to remain open, rather than compensating them for ordering them to shut, or forcing them to bear that loss. The pubs are shut, now.

It was a political decision whether people could meet in the open air. At one point, people could not meet their parents in their gardens, though it was outside and infection was unlikely.

Left wing politics is best for counteracting a pandemic. We need common action for the common good. It is unconscionable for the extremely rich to make money from such a natural disaster. People who lose wages should be supported, up to a certain level. Left wing politicians are better able to see how people will act for the common good: left wing politicians imposed a requirement to wear masks earlier, knowing that people would comply, for their own good and the good of the whole community.

The hard right Nationalist government in Britain was too selfish to govern well. When Dominic Cummings broke the lockdown rules, the Prime Minister should have sacked him, in order to preserve respect for the rules. They also had a craven desire for popularity, so promised we could celebrate Christmas together from about July, and kept making that increasingly dangerous promise until Saturday 19th December. As a result our borders are closed, and supermarkets are showing shortages in some goods, even before their catastrophic Brexit would have achieved the same result on 1 January. Their ideological desire that all testing should be done by private companies rather than public employees, and their corrupt enrichment of their chums, made the situation worse.

The sociopathic President Trump was only capable of seeing his own short-term interests, and Paul Krugman suggests he delayed action hoping the stock exchange index would reach the magic figure of 30,000, improving his re-election chances. His suggestions of injecting bleach may have been to get attention. Republicans used the pandemic to stoke a culture war, on the new Republican doctrine that doing anything which is not entirely selfish is Socialism, and Un-American. Their science denial, developed for so long, on Creationism, acid rain, the ozone hole, and the climate catastrophe, continued on Covid. The result is 300,000 deaths. This is the result of politics. Science can only achieve so much.

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