Monday, March 20, 2023

Three years after the COVID-19 lockdown

Three years ago, the Spanish government took the decision to mandate a strict lockdown that kept us at home for six weeks. People like me had to get used to online classes and meetings, and our social life and connection to loved ones was severely restricted. Compared to what many others had to endure, I was very lucky.

In those days, there was huge uncertainty, which persisted for a long time. I will never forget the empty streets of Barcelona. Even after the strict lockdown, for many months ours was a sad town in the absence of visitors and tourists. My courses for foreign students on soccer and economics were suspended for more than one year. We didn’t know if we would emerge from the coma-induced economic crisis in a V-shape, L-shape, W, or what… Today we know that the recovery has been better than expected and things have basically gone back to normal... although more for some than for others, depending on whether you have lost loved ones, or whether you've been seriously affected by the disease. 

Still today, some of the discussions that we had at the moment have not been closed. If I understand well, it is not even clear whether it was a good idea to lock us down at home, or even to mandate wearing masks. Some months into the pandemic, we already had books about how everything had changed and would change even more. Some of the authors would like to hide some of the books now. I think that we will, and we must, keep studying about issues related to the pandemic for a long time. It is a great opportunity to use this natural experiment to patiently study lots of phenomena. More than one century later, there are still studies trying to understand the so-called Spanish flu of 1918.

What we do know is that public intervention and complementary social norms took center stage, and that politicians like Donald Trump who disregarded scientists and experts will be forever discredited. We also experienced a clear example about the interdependence of countries and governments and the importance of human cooperation at many levels.  We learned that there is no such thing as the absolute truth. Truth is provisional and subject to change, improvement and refinement, but that does not mean that it does not exist. It is precisely because of uncertainty that we must listen to scientists and not to demagogs. I honestly believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to stop the worse of populism, although there are still many survivors.

The pandemic has been a lesson about our vulnerability as species, and a call to be cautious about making predictions. The philosopher Yuval Noah Harari was discredited because he had said this in 2017:

 “So in the struggle against calamities such as AIDS and Ebola, scales are tipping in humanity’s favor. … It is therefore likely that major epidemics will continue to endanger humankind in the future only if humankind itself creates them, in the service of some ruthless ideology. The era when humankind stood helpless before natural epidemics is probably over. But we may come to miss it.”

He was wrong. Millions of people died, and today we can all agree that the pandemic was not created in “service of some ruthless ideology.” However, he together with other popular pundits continued to offer their supposed expertise by appearing on TV shows during the pandemic, as explained in this article in the magazine Current Affairs

The pandemic has taught us not only that public intervention was needed to stop the diffusion of the disease, deploy massive plans to protect the incomes of people, develop and massively administer vaccines, and to articulate massive investment funds (like the Next Generation program in Europe). It has also reminded us of the acute inequalities at the local and especially at the global level. And it has been a lesson in multidisciplinarity, as combining knowledge from science, humanities and politics has been crucial to understand what was happening and react to it.

Not having a clue about mathematics or statistics, and not even believing in their importance, has been very costly, as an article about the mathematical ignorance of British prime Minister Boris Johnson reveals.

I was very impressed by the ability of governments to mobilize resources for a common good. For example, I had never seen as graphical an application of the principle “to everyone according to their needs, from everyone according to their abilities” as with the administration of vaccines in Spain and the EU in general, where the ability to pay played absolutely no role. I was also very impressed in the fall of 2021 when I flew to Chile (a country usually associated to neo-liberal policies, then still with a right-wing government), to experience a very detailed and intrusive, but necessary and successful, plan to have all foreing visitors tested and monitored between their arrival and their departure. Or by the practical application of European integration with the development of a EU-wide Covid-19 certificate.

Still today, I know university graduates (not necessarily right wing ones) who have strong stances against vaccines. This has been a lesser problem in Spain compared to other countries, but it shows that there is still a lot to think about in terms of how to communicate science in uncertain contexts.

No comments:

Post a Comment