I’ll admit this headline is a provocation, but up to a point. I’ll explain myself. These days we are undergoing a transformation of which we will only become fully aware after a number of years, once someone is able to have the necessary perspective to analyse which changes are irreversible and how many mundane gestures have been swept away by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the moment we are in shock and the mood swings from sadness to a general state of bewilderment. This includes our political representatives, who cannot conceal the gravity of a new situation that overwhelms them.
The time we are living through can only be compared to the great historic transformations that were triggered either by humankind’s foolishness, such the two world wars, or external factors. It will be a start-from-scratch, if we can make it through this event, one that will have a greater bearing on our political future than the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
With half the world’s population on lockdown and a potential public health threat on the entire human species, we could react in many different ways. It depends on every one of us and how demanding we are about the sort of future we want. These are dark times and it seems in poor taste to talk about opportunities, as if someone could possibly claim that the pain we are experiencing could have any purpose. But if we lack an aspirational, transformative outlook —for want of an optimistic one— our prospects can only get worse and our future be bleaker than our past.
We need a future that is open, rather than boarded up. I don’t mean we can’t learn from the necessary individual introspection and the management of loneliness, which we all must face sooner or later. Rather, I refer to the collective reaction: it would be a mistake to react to the coronavirus by withdrawing inwardly.
One of the few windows that allows some light to shine through these days is the public’s expression of gratitude for the work of the people who provide basic services, in particular health care, plus a greater than usual vindication of technical and scientific knowledge. This is happening in a society that sometimes seems made up of natives dazzled by shiny glass beads looking to get rich fast in a manner that shuns science and technology. If we wish for a better future, we will have to work together and embrace the spirit of science in every instance, rather than withdraw inwardly,.
It is fact that, generally speaking, the scientific community is teaching political leaders a lesson, not merely in Catalonia or Spain. More than ever in history, scientists across the world are working together, sharing their findings with the research community and building collective knowledge “on the shoulders of giants”, to quote De Chartres.
While so many world leaders are looking inwardly and so many European leaders hesitate to work with one another, hundreds of thousands of researchers from many countries and fields pool together their ideas, experiences, equipment and funds for the sake of a common goal. This wealth of talent working for the benefit of the human species is the great news story of the coronavirus crisis and our way out of it in the mid to long term.
This week Nature ran a feature about Crowdfight COVID-19, an example of this open, collaborative attitude. The platform is asking for volunteers to assist key researchers in transcribing data, collecting scientific literature and providing advice on specific issues. Over 35,000 people have already signed up.
For traditional political leadership, there is a lesson to be learnt from this crisis: to understand that the most efficient managers are able to bring experts onboard, take decisions with an open mind, work in an interconnected world and ditch the secrecy that the corridors of power have traditionally been shrouded in. We must embrace cooperation mechanisms and a long-term outlook. Whereas science is based on debate and the challenges posed by a permanent process of falsifiability, all too often the management of public affairs is based on a lack of debate and the opacity of decisions taken with a short-term view. It is as if secrecy and infallibility were part and parcel of politics, as if the goal of politics was the exercise of power in itself, rather than social progress and transformation.
For instance, it is surprising that many countries initially struggled to learn from the experience of China and Italy in order to preempt the impending shockwave, and how long it has taken them to put together scientific committees to inform a great deal of global decisions. Has the experience of the WHO on the ground been taken into account to the necessary extent?
The European Union deserves a whole separate chapter. The EU’s very existence is at stake. Next week we will find out whether the north points fingers at the south for becoming ill or a spirit of cooperation prevails. It will be a good indicator of where Europe is headed.