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Covid-19 Pandemic: Did Science Let Us Down?

By Minabere Ibelema

After receiving from a nephew a number of WhatsApp forwards that question the reality of coronavirus, I sent him a pointed warning: “I hope you’re not personally buying into this crazy idea that coronavirus is a hoax.” His response encapsulates the informational and policy turmoil that has followed the pandemic.

“I believe there’s engineered virus, and that people are dying from it,” he texted. “But what I don’t believe are the lies about it; the contradictory reports from WHO and other bodies about it, the role of politicians on the matter.”

My sense is that my nephew speaks for a lot of people. From the supportive information he sent me subsequently, I infer that his assertion of “lies” was inspired by the conspiracy theories on the origin of the virus, trial of vaccines, and claims of cures. Those are issues for another day.

Here, I focus on the contradictions and divergent policies. Who would deny that they have been dizzying?

Early in the outbreak in Wuhan, China, it was reported that the virus was too heavy to linger in the air. On that assumption, face masks were deemed necessary only for the infected and their caregivers. It turns out that the assumption was mistaken. Now, many countries and municipalities require that face masks be worn by everyone in the public place.

Earlier on, it was reported that the fatality rate of coronavirus is lower than that of its predecessor, SARS. It turns out that it isn’t.

For quite some time, the World Health Organisation would not classify coronavirus as a pandemic — that it was a global threat. WHO eventually did so, but by then the virus had permeated most countries and begun to wreak havoc.

Even now, as countries have begun to loosen preventive restrictions, it is evident that the virus is far from understood. This is evident in the wide array of approaches.

For example, countries differ on when to re-open schools. In the US, most school systems are remaining closed until the next school year in August or September. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to defer re-opening of schools until June 1.

Of the world leaders, Johnson is probably the most sensitive to the risk of coronavirus. Not only was he afflicted, his condition got so bad that plans were underway for his succession.

In contrast to the US and UK, countries such as Denmark and Germany are reopening schools on a limited basis following diametrically different rationales. Denmark is re-opening schools only for young children — on the assumption that they are less at risk. Germany is re-opening schools only for older children, because they can be counted on to maintain social distance.

Regarding restaurants, some US states now allow dining inside and some limit services to open spaces and curbside pickups. The latter is the practice in some European countries, such as Lithuania.

In Nigeria, states have pursued various policies. On the one end is the lax policy in northern states. On the other extreme is the draconian lockdown imposed by Governor Nyesom Wike in Rivers State. In between are states such as Lagos and Ogun that enforce lockdowns, but with a more human face.

Underlying the smorgasbord of approaches is uncertainty over what it will take to contain the virus without destroying the economy and sacrificing the underprivileged. There is an answer to each side of the dilemma but not in combination.

Max Fisher, a New York Times columnist and international news reporter, has characterised the relaxation approaches as a matter of trial and error. In the paper’s online digest on May 8, Fisher was quoted as telling a fellow Times man:

“Few want to acknowledge it, but these first phases of reopening are big experiments meant to test the unknowns. It’s a dangerous game, and it’s worth being cleareyed about the risks we’re all taking on.”

In effect, after about five months of battling the virus, humanity is still groping? And that raises the question, is this a failing of science?

The answer, alas, is both yes and no. Regarding the “yes,” it is not so much a matter of failure as it is of limitations. Because medical science has done so much for society, we tend to forget that it is not magic. Its results don’t come from waving wands.

Rather scientific research entails a painstaking process of hypothesizing, experimenting, verifying, testing, and replicating. Inevitably, there are many dead ends in the process. And it entails much frustration and uncommon perseverance.

The challenge is compounded when scientists are dealing with a viral emergency. They are prodded to issue tentative declarations about the virus before they have fully studied it. And therein lies the inconsistencies that rile my nephew and many others.

Regarding the loosening of restrictions, however, medical science has been consistent in its exhortation: not so fast. The divergent policies are the product of political and economic pressures.

In mid-April, for example, the White House issued broad guidelines for loosening the lockdowns. Among the key requirements are that COVID-19 cases fall consistently for 14 days; that the given state reaches a certain benchmark in testing and tracing, and that there is an enhanced capacity for patient care. That includes adequate availability of personal protective equipment for healthcare professionals, ventilation machines for patients, and face masks for all.

President Donald Trump apparently didn’t have much faith in the guidelines, which were developed by his coronavirus task force. So, even as he touted then as evidence of his leadership, he undercut them by exhorting governors to hasten relaxation measures. Several states soon heeded him, though few have met any of the benchmarks, let alone all.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s leading expert on infectious diseases, sounded an alarm one more time in a testimony to a US Senate committee on Tuesday. Relaxing the lockdown measures too fast would result in “little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” Fauci told the committee via a video feed from his home, where he was self-quarantined. “The consequence could be really serious.”

Had Dr. Fauci addressed the Nigerian masses, he would have been deafened by a chorus of the counterpoint that the “hunger virus” is as deadly as coronavirus. To which Dr. Fauci would rebut that if coronavirus is not contained, “hunger virus” would get even deadlier. And the two viruses would collude to wreak the most havoc.

As debates go, it is a deadlock. So, policy makers have little choice but to grope around on two rationales. One is that relaxation of restrictions can always be reversed, as some countries are already doing. The other—and more critical rationale—is that public awareness and individual agency are the best avenue to the happy middle.

UK’s Johnson encapsulated this rationale in an address to Parliament on Monday. “Let’s be absolutely clear, everybody understands what we are trying to do together,” Johnson said. “And that is working together as a country to obey the social-distancing rules, which everyone understands. This is a moment for the whole country to come together, obey those rules, and apply common sense to follow them.”

In other words, under relaxation, the burden of containing the virus rests considerably on the public.

Meanwhile medical scientists are toiling away in their labs to develop a cure and/or vaccine. When—not if— they succeed, there will be accelerated adoption and distribution. Till then, all we can do is self-protect, count on science, and hope for the best.

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