What we have seen is that global calamity can come in a strange and perplexing form, at the same time apocalyptic and weirdly domestic. The numbers who have died from the coronavirus, the scenes and reports from hospitals, mass graves, overwhelmed and decimated communities, have the shape of eschatological science fiction. But for some of us – the lucky ones – this meant staying at home with the spring sunshine and the birdsong, making bread. Everything changed, and seems unlikely to revert, but we never quite imagined that global transformation would be like what we have seen.
What we have seen is that the world today cannot persist with any stability without science, but that science cannot be its saviour. We have seen scientists come up with the goods as never before: understanding, tests, data, medical procedures, vaccines. If we look carefully, what we have seen is that these things are not created overnight but become possible only with sustained and committed support for basic scientific research.
What we have seen is that there are no technological solutions to social crises. Knowledge and know-how count for little if the social fabric is too thin and patchy to hold them. Social crises, especially if they involve public health, find and exploit weaknesses, most of all those that involve inequalities of opportunity, resources, employment, stability and safety. What we have seen is that things will get worse if these issues do not get better, locally and globally.
What we have seen is that political failings too become the flaws along which cracks will open in times of crisis. Lies, corruption, self-interest, laziness and complacency, and sheer ineptitude have all created such fissures. Where they are present, it does not matter how advanced and superior you think your society is. It will crack.
What we have seen is that such failings do not make much difference to political popularity. They are not reflected in the polls. What matters much more is who controls the narrative. What we have seen is that this is a deep problem for the ability of democracy to create good governance.
What we have seen is that our habit of mocking former ages for their delusions and superstitions is nothing more than a projection of our own anxieties and self-deception. We have seen that we are no less capable of and drawn to denial of what is in front of our noses, what is undeniable, yet what is inconvenient to our worldview. Our technologies simply become new places for delusion and fantasy to reside: in radio masts, medicines and vaccines. Our new technologies create new channels for lies and deceptions to spread; they create contagion at the speed of light.
What we have seen is that powerful parts of the media are heavily invested in and encourage voices whose entire worldview is based on behaving as they like, not just disregarding the well-being of others but being positively contemptuous of any imploration to do so. Such people will lie incessantly to argue a “rational” case for their position. They will be invited onto broadcast media and into public debates, and awarded newspaper columns to put their “controversial” views forth, often by media editors who share them. What we have seen is that there are powerful sectors of the media that will prefer to see people die rather than moderate these libertarian views. What we have seen is that they will always find maverick scientists to support them.
What we have seen is that we are morally lost if we allow political and tribal affiliations to take precedence over a sense of decency, compassion and justice and a demand for competence. We all have a sense of how we should like our society to be run; we can recognize that others will have different visions and that we can debate and argue about those differences. But if in the end our vision is not tethered a moral compass that values fairness and respect for others, it is a mere posture.
What we have seen is that scientists become political the moment they take political appointments. They will not thereafter necessarily be able to separate scientific and technical advice and comment from its political implications. Scientists should not accept such roles unless they are willing to recognize this. They will fail in their duty only if they withhold expert judgement for fear that it will have political ramifications. What we have seen is that science and scientists too have moral obligations beyond their professional ones.
What we have seen is that people are resilient, brave, selfless, compassionate, extraordinary. They will bear hardship and risk for the sake of others. What we have seen is that some of the biggest dangers come from underestimating people and their readiness to help, to heed, and to find creative solutions in the most desperate circumstances.
What we have seen is that we will change our lives when it becomes imperative, and that those who insist that such change to avoid future catastrophe is impossible are wrong. What we have seen is that we have the social capital, the ingenuity and determination to do better than we have done so far. But only if we can find the right story, and if we can learn from what we have seen.