As the panic wanes, many are becoming critical of the strict restrictions governments imposed this spring to slow the spread of coronavirus. It has become clear that lockdowns are not a feasible solution to save lives in the long term: drastically reduced economic and other activity also kills. From mental health damage resulting from isolation and fear for financial stability to reduced chances of surviving cancer due to later diagnosis, lockdowns are bringing worse consequences than we wanted to believe in March.
The early-spring fright around the pandemic among the general population and the consequential support for mobility restrictions is understandable. However, one would hope authorities had a broader picture of how to balance risks related to public health, financial stability, and the overall well-being of their citizens. While politicians emphasised that we must listen to epidemiologists and follow science*, we forgot that science is rarely unanimous and that successful politics demands interdisciplinary approaches. The rigorous strategy most Western countries chose in order to reduce the number of COVID-19 infections was highly based on medical scientists’ views. At the same time, concerns of economists, sociologists and psychologists were far less influential. Concerns such as rising domestic violence, depressions, poverty-related deaths and deaths from fatal diseases due to belated diagnosis were not entirely overlooked. Still, they were largely overshadowed by the corona-induced panic. Although it is too early to reach a straightforward conclusion on whether such unintended consequences will be worse than human losses would be without restrictions, I do believe this narrow-minded approach to dealing with the pandemic was wrong. In the remainder of this article, I will present my opinion on how the strict path that most Western countries followed in spring (or still follow) could result in diminished public trust in science. Precisely, I believe that what is to come as a result of COVID-19 related restrictions, such as the rising unemployment due to preventing people from working, might increase public discontent with authorities which could extrapolate to a general distrust in science.
Recent surveys have shown that anti-vaccine sentiment has been increasing during the pandemic. Even among people who are not prone to believing in conspiracy theories, the rush for corona-vaccine does not instil confidence in its safety. In the US, for example, a growing proportion of citizens thinks Trump is hurrying with the vaccine in order to boost the chances of winning the election by positioning himself as a saviour. Such insight is interesting, considering that anti-vaxxers in the US generally tend to be Republicans and hence pro-Trump. As the poll conducted by YouGov shows, only 37% of Republicans say they would get vaccinated against the virus, compared to 61% of Democrats. Still, corona-vaccine hesitancy is relatively high in both groups, likely due to concerns about strong politicians’ interests in placing the vaccine on the market as soon as possible. While vaccines usually take more than 10 years to develop, the pressure to “go back to normal” means such a long time frame is out of the question. Considering this pressure put on scientists working on the vaccine, it is not hard to imagine how those disappointed in authorities ruling their country may extrapolate their distrust to science. Sceptics do not believe scientists can work independently on the vaccine and, consequently, may be prone to believing in conspiracy theories about vaccines containing suspicious components. Since scientific research is for a large part financed by the government and major corporations such as Big Pharma, it is not surprising when people hostile towards politicians and/or corporations extend their disenchantment to science.
Moreover, the upcoming economic recession is likely to result in greater financial inequality which can increase the popularity of conspiracy theories among losers of the new order. Conspiracies about the coronavirus being a lie orchestrated by the pharmaceutical industry and the richest to get even richer are already common. Related beliefs are primarily spread on Facebook: the phenomenon has gained such popularity that the company has started a fight against the spread of COVID-related misinformation. The rising discrepancy between the stock market performance and the economy could result in additional frustrations of low- and middle-class citizens and make them more doubtful about the intentions of authorities who claim to care about them. Realising that the rich like Jeff Bezos added tens of billions to their net worth during lockdowns while they became unemployed could provoke serious doubts about the competence of politicians and scientists to take good care of their community. As a result, those most vulnerable to the economic downfall could fall prey to conspiracy beliefs. Since conspiracies often go against science (flat Earth theory, for example), the inevitable economic recession and the resulting higher inequality could therefore increase the popularity of conspiracies and increase science distrust.
IMPLICATIONS OF INCREASED SCIENCE DISTRUST
If it occurs, increased science distrust is critical because other social challenges which require trust in science are ahead of us. A major one is climate change. If consequences of strict COVID-19 restrictions lead to public discontent towards “following science”, it could be considerably more challenging to persuade people to devote to another cause scientists are warning us about. Even before the pandemic, agreeing on a concrete climate change mitigation strategy was a rather complicated process. Although scientific consensus on the seriousness of the anthropogenic climate change is achieved, some of the most influential individuals like Trump still choose to neglect the risks. When the consequences of the COVID-19 restrictions show their severity, not only might scepticism regarding policies based on scientific grounds rise, but people will also have less mental energy to engage with broader social problems. Climate change is an issue that can easily be treated as distant and ignored in order to alleviate potential feelings of personal responsibility and guilt. Once more people become unemployed, once their savings are drained, and uncertainty about ensuring a decent living becomes immense, it will be hard for politicians to persuade citizens about the urgency of somewhat obscure climate change. To reduce feelings of cognitive dissonance, which is psychological stress that occurs when one’s actions are contradictory to their beliefs, more people could choose to dismiss climate scientists’ warnings. Such a trend would turn out to be dangerous not only for humans but also for other species on our planet affected by distortions in ecosystems’ harmony.
For this reason, I believe politicians must clearly acknowledge the mistakes they made during the beginning of the pandemic. Explaining the reasoning behind decisions made in spring and how these would be different with the knowledge we have today is vital. A sincere apology to those who lost jobs or whose loved ones got diagnosed with cancer too late is also welcome. Otherwise, a regular citizen who is not expert in any scientific discipline and is not familiar with how complicated the world of science is will more easily fall prey to misinformation and conspiracies. If trust in science as such is lost, agreeing on a general policy regarding any social challenge will be very exacting. In the case of climate change, too much time has already been lost on negotiations to be able to afford the luxury of postponing action.
I do not think COVID-19 is a lie or a completely benign disease which medical science utterly overestimated. However, I consider the mere focus on reducing the number of infections at the expense of mental, financial and (in other aspects) physical well-being a failure. The disregard of all sciences besides epidemiology in the period of panicking gave a wrong picture of how science works. No scientific discovery happens overnight: peer-to-peer reviews consisting of thorough investigations into a paper’s assumptions, methodology and implications are a crucial part of science. On the contrary, the impression in most countries during the lockdown was that such a strategy was the only option to save lives. Sweden, which took a different approach, was mocked at and those critical of the mainstream path were often criticised as caring only about profits and not humans. As time passes, it seems more and more like lockdowns just postponed the inevitable while severely damaging the economy and the overall well-being of citizens. The credibility of science-based policies could, as a result of disappointment in unsustainable lockdowns, be lost in the eyes of many. Sentiment towards a COVID-19 vaccine, once discovered, is the first test of this opinion. In the long term, however, other significant challenges such as climate change will show what effects disappointment in dealing with the pandemic will have on trust in science.
*Disclaimer: I understand that not all countries have taken the same approach. I come from Croatia and am hence writing about the topic from the South-Eastern European perspective.