Science is crucial for our survival

With no early end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, two crucial questions are on the agenda: how can we protect lives in this emergency, and what fundamental economic changes can prevent big corporate interests from imposing the burden of this crisis on working people?

The second question is a subject for another commentary, but it’s closely related to the immediate problem. Looking around the world, we can see that some countries have made tremendous progress in containing the pandemic, especially those with economies and social systems which prioritize people’s welfare over private profits.

That includes the People’s Republic of China, which was quick to alert the world to the danger of the virus and to implement urgent measures to “flatten the curve.” Vietnam and Cuba acted in a similar way, and some capitalist countries also implemented successful campaigns to isolate the virus and tackle new outbreaks. Meanwhile, major capitalist powers like the US, Britain and Brazil have failed badly. The record is mixed in Canada, where seniors in private-care homes have suffered badly, and where a new upsurge in cases and deaths is still very possible.

The experience of the last six months shows that governments which acted on the best advice of medical experts and epidemiologists have largely protected their populations, far better than in countries where right-wing leaders ignore or downplay science.

This is a critical lesson for survival in the coming months, perhaps even years.

Let’s be frank. The “s-word” sometimes has a bad reputation these days. People are encouraged to blame “science” for problems ranging from COVID-19 to climate change to job losses.

This tendency to dismiss science as dangerous or irrelevant has deep roots in corporate interests seeking to protect their profits, such as fossil fuel industries which fund climate change denial movements, but also among fundamentalist religious groups. In a capitalist society where the “right” to pursue private wealth is held up as the supreme example of liberty, these forces try to dismiss science as quaint and outdated, even an obstacle to individual freedom.

Unfortunately, some people in the broader left community have jumped on the anti-science bandwagon. Since scientists and health care workers are part of a wider system which includes Big Pharma, they argue, we should resist wearing face masks to slow the spread of the virus, or even oppose any COVID-19 vaccine. For example, spreading the lies promoted by far-right groups, the widely-read Global Research website even published an article claiming that “not a single person has died from the coronavirus.”

Much confusion arises from basic misunderstandings about the nature of scientific research. Climate change deniers specialize in this tactic, teasing out specific contrary details from the vast accumulation of data on global weather patterns. Presented by researchers with university degrees and lists of published articles, the intention is to raise doubts about the big picture.

“What are we supposed to believe?” is the anguished cry. “Some scientists say climate change is real, others say the opposite.”

But science does not advance through a mechanism of unanimous votes. When thousands of scientists present powerful evidence in peer-reviewed journals indicating that human economic activity is a major factor in the carbon emissions which cause climate change, their conclusions are not cancelled out by a few contrary voices.

Similarly, the overwhelming majority of scientists and medical experts agree that wearing face masks, physical distancing, frequent hand-washing and other measures are all necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19, save lives and reduce the strain on healthcare systems.

A small number of doctors and politicians take a different approach, advocating miracle treatments, or “solutions” such as “herd immunity” (a concept disproven by the latest research) or even absurd claims such as “masks make you sick.” The same people have gained some traction with their dangerous anti-vaccine campaigns.

Unless countered, these efforts may pose a serious public health danger for years to come, by preventing the level of vaccination rates needed to protect the population. For example, communities where resistance is strong against measles vaccination have seen rising numbers of new outbreaks in schools.

It’s absolutely true that Big Pharma aims to benefit through the discovery of a COVID-19 vaccine. If a corporation such as drug developer Moderna gains a monopoly over production and distribution of a vaccine, it could potentially gain billions of dollars in profits for shareholders.

The reality of corporate profiteering in our capitalist society is certainly cause for the working class to push back hard. We need to call for public ownership of the pharmaceutical sector, and to demand that any new vaccines and medical treatments are made available free of charge and distributed on a global scale. This could easily be accomplished simply by slashing the vast amounts spent every year on militarism, and by ending taxpayer subsidies of big corporations.

But at the same time, we must counter the unscientific claims that legitimate medical treatments are dangerous, or that face masks are unnecessary. The anti-vaxxers and anti-lockdown movements are trying to take advantage of public cynicism about corporate interests, and the lack of scientific literacy in the wider population. Their lies must be exposed, even when this means engaging in uncomfortable discussions with friends and family members. There is far too much at stake to stay quiet.

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