COVID-19 SPECIAL

Science denial could kill us all

Scepticism towards science takes many forms and is currently threatening efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic

WASHINGTON • That Dr Anthony Fauci, perhaps the Donald Trump administration's most - or even its only - credible voice on the Covid-19 pandemic, has had to be given a security detail because of death threats against him, may be the most fitting, and ominous, comment on our times.

The proximate reasons why the United States has failed to contain the Covid-19 coronavirus, or beef up its healthcare system in advance of the virus' arrival on Jan 20 - the same day South Korea reported its first case - are fairly easy to pinpoint.

They range from the mundane - plain inefficiency - to the systemic.

The US' labyrinthine, protocol-bound bureaucracy and decentralised nature - "Because of lack of federal leadership, we have turned this into 50 outbreaks," says Dr Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute - has not helped.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg as Covid-19 rampages across the US. A certain underlying condition - science scepticism - has turned the US into fertile ground for the rapid spread of the disease.

The US is not alone. Right-wing regimes like those of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India are among those that have either stood silent while quackery and superstition enjoy an unlikely but deadly renaissance, or aided and abetted it, if nothing else than by their silence.

There has been no word from Mr Modi as his party men and women extol the virtues of drinking cow urine as a cure. Mr Bolsonaro has dismissed Covid-19 as nothing more than a "little flu", even when it is a disease that has killed more than 50,000 people globally in three months, and could eventually kill up to 240,000 in the US.

In the US, science scepticism has been obvious since before Mr Trump became president; during his 2016 campaign, he famously called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to rob America of its competitiveness - sweeping aside decades of peer-reviewed scientific research and consensus. One of his first acts as president was to withdraw from the Paris Accord on curbing climate change.

President Trump's initial response to the outbreak suggested that he saw the Covid-19 threat through two prisms - a border problem, and the stock market.

On Jan 22, he told CNBC: "We have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China. It's going to be just fine."

On Feb 24, he tweeted: "The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock market starting to look very good to me!"

Dr Ezekiel J. Emanuel, professor of Health Care Management and Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine, has this to say of Mr Trump's responses: "He's not a scientist and he wasn't listening to his public health people. I know, I spoke to him, he wasn't listening, and he was in a kind of denial."


US President Donald Trump at a coronavirus task force news conference at the White House in Washington on Tuesday. Science scepticism has turned the US into fertile ground for the rapid spread of Covid-19, says the writer. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

"And the public, especially Trump supporters, don't believe what they (scientists) are saying; we still have a lot of lack of belief in the seriousness of this," he told The Straits Times.

A related factor in the resistance to scientific advice in the US has been conservative media scepticism, set amid the toxic political environment.

The credibility of the mainstream media - a term that in right-wing circles has become a pejorative - has been undermined to the point where credible professional media is treated with scepticism and disdain in favour of media that affirms one's biases.

"It wasn't only President Trump who questioned the science," Dr David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, wrote on March 22 in the non-profit digital magazine Undark. "The voices who are skilled at promoting scientific uncertainty and denialism - Fox News commentators and right-wing radio voices like Rush Limbaugh for example - downplayed the threat posed by the virus, accusing Trump's political opponents of using it to hurt the President."

FROM FLAT EARTHERS TO ANTI-VAXXERS

Science denialism has a long history, not limited to fringe Flat Earth believers. Tobacco and fossil fuel corporations are among some of the vested interests that have lobbied against science for decades - sometimes through subverting the process of scientific inquiry by funding research to produce skewed or contrarian findings.

And then there is the rise of the "anti-vaxxer movement' and other dodgy health claims, a development turbocharged by social media. Last year, measles outbreaks in Minnesota and Brooklyn, New York, were traced to the "anti-vaxxer" movement, which advocates that children should not be vaccinated. In April last year, the New York City authorities had to issue a mandate requiring residents in parts of Brooklyn to get vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella, or face a US$1,000 (S$1,435) fine.

In the current crisis, the religious right in the US has also played a part. Take Mr Guillermo Maldonado, who calls himself an "apostle" and hosted Mr Trump earlier this year at an event at his southern Florida mega church.

On March 15, Mr Maldonado encouraged his parishioners to disregard official warnings against gathering in crowded places, saying fear of exposure to Covid-19 was the product of a "demonic spirit".

"Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus? Of course not," he said.

Dr Fauci, who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has been a particular target.

On March 16, the Indiana Coalition for Vaccination Choice warned that "Fauci is all over the media, serving up outright falsehoods to stir up even more panic".

"If anything, what people like Fauci and the other fearmongers are demanding will likely make the disease worse. The martial law they dream about will leave people hunkered down inside their homes instead of going outdoors or to the beach where the sunshine and fresh air would help boost immunity."

On March 22, Oregonians for Healthcare Choice posted a meme hitting the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that read "CDC=Corona disinformation centre".

"President Trump's response to the Covid-19 pandemic has followed a trajectory similar to the Republican Party's response to the dangers produced by the tobacco, fossil fuel, chemical and mining industries, but telescoped over weeks instead of years," Dr Michaels wrote.

"Scientists' concerns about significant harm are met with scepticism and denial, then acknowledgement and government action only once the truth becomes overwhelmingly clear, illuminated by disaster and tragedy."

CLIMATE CHANGE

If the Covid-19 crisis is the subject of such scepticism, what more of climate change?

The coronavirus knows no class distinction and has reached into the heart of Manhattan, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco - and yet it remains the target of science deniers.

Climate change, by contrast, is a slow-moving disaster, and when it does kill - through the agency of unusually intense storms or droughts, for instance - it is often poorer people first in conveniently remote locations.

If the coronavirus is race-, nationality-, class-and colour-blind, so is climate change.

The mounting death toll, especially currently in the US, should serve as a lesson to take threats flagged by science seriously. It is incumbent on governments, the media and the scientific community to push back vigorously against science denialism. Our lives depend on it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2020, with the headline 'Science denial could kill us all'. Subscribe