The Science and Politics of Covid-19 (Springer, 2021) is one of the first popular science books published on the ongoing pandemic. Combining scientific rigour and journalistic style, the book retraces the history and the management of the pandemic in several countries. It draws upon lessons learned during the crisis, discusses the emergence of “science politics,” and answers the question: why has science failed?
Everything we have seen about the Covid-19 outbreak corroborates with Rudolf Virchow, the 19th century father of pathological anatomy when he said that “an epidemic is a social phenomenon with some medical aspects.” The biggest fear since World War II, the coronavirus pandemic highlighted mistakes in government strategies and scientific research. Based on the latest research and interviews with experts from China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries, this popular science book provides an insider’s view on this major crisis which tells us a lot about the relations between science and society.
In Short Covid-19 came out of the blue. On January 2, 2020, WHO issued a global alert on the emergence of several cases of “pneumonia of unknown cause” in Wuhan, China. Except in Beijing, most governments did not show any panic and merely set up a daily monitoring of the incubating epidemic. Donald Trump mocked the “Chinese virus” and claimed that “everything is under control.” This story is about a collective failure. Some of the most scientifically advanced countries have the highest Covid-19 mortality. With probably more than 10 million deaths as of today, the new coronavirus caused a rise of 20% in the annual number of deaths worldwide.
Why has Science failed? Although most governments based their Covid-19 strategy on science, scientists failed to have a decisive influence on decision-makers—except in China—, which created genuine “time bombs.” The accelerated development of vaccines does not erase past months’ errors. More worryingly, experts themselves acknowledge that they did not rise to the challenge. Covid-19 also highlighted the weakness of democratic regimes and the power of technocapitalism. The “politics” of science came frontstage during the crisis, unveiling links between the production of science and the private sector, personal struggles among researchers who strive for recognition and authority, and the intermingling of science with politics.
What Did We Learn? Here are 10 messages and recommendations developed in the book:
- Politicians and scientists have a shared responsibility for the mismanagement of the crisis. Many experts acknowledge that they did not rise to the challenge and underestimated the contagiousness of the virus and the dangerousness of the disease
- A major political mistake was that countries pulled down their blinds, locked their doors, and promoted national approaches rather than international cooperation
- We are not certain that SARS-CoV-2 originated in China as the coronavirus was already circulating in Europe in early December 2019 (at least in France and Italy)
- We did not learn the lessons from previous epidemics. Countries that have performed the best are those that implemented non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) as soon as possible. Speed is everything
- Mismanagement, miscommunication and incomprehensible delays led to genuine “time bombs.” Prevention of an epidemic does not start when the epidemic starts
- Expert committees should not be created “ex nihilo” but attached to the competent administration departments in order to secure decision processes and communication
- The crisis accelerated the development of “science politics” at an unprecedented scale, unveiling the links between the production of science and the private sector, the intermingling of science with politics and the political objectives of some experts
- The overall mismanagement also reflects the importance of overspecialisation and miscommunication, which has become a way of life in our society
- Despite rapid advances on vaccines, the pandemic will not end before several months or years have passed. Herd immunity may never be reached
- The resistance to masks and vaccines show that scientific knowledge disseminates slowly. It is now time for political distancing to put the basics first: develop science, fight ignorance.
Background Covid-19 is the disease created by a new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which appeared at the end of 2019. The virus’ genome is contained in a single strand of RNA (ribonucleic acid), which is 29 903 nucleotides long and encodes for just 10 genes, making it the longest known RNA virus genome while being a hundred thousand times smaller than the human genome. The complete sequence was published on January 11, 2020. Human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 was confirmed on January 11, 2020. As of today, more than 180 million people have been infected by the new coronavirus and probably more than 10 million people (officially) have died from Covid-19.
Michel Claessens is the author of “The Science and Politics of Covid-19” (Springer, 2021). A scientist and journalist, he works for the European Commission and teaches at the University of Brussels.
Contact email@example.com, @M_Claessens, +33-6-22887707
 World Health Organization, The top 10 causes of death, 9 December 2020, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death