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We must look beyond the bounds of science in our recovery from the pandemic

Hong Kong has recently been struggling to vaccinate its citizens – not due to a lack of vaccines or because of their accessibility, but because there is a short supply of trust. Alienation from their own government, due to encroachments by China and doubt over Chinese-produced vaccines such as the questionably approved CoronaVac, threaten to slow down the city’s recovery.

Foremost, this is proof of the fact that there are bigger problems than the coronavirus. Vaccines can only help us escape what, in the pages of history, is a short-term and common dilemma. Science can solve many of our problems, but the case of Hong Kong proves its limits when faced with democratic deficit and weak state sovereignty. The fact that science tends to be in the hands of state or market actors who may have little legitimacy proves not only how untrustworthy it can be, but the potential dangers posed by our current fetishisation of this discipline.

As we emerge from the pandemic, it is the need to secure more than just our biological futures that policymakers and governments should be focusing on instead of quick-fix science-based solutions. Even if the Chinese-produced CoronaVac vaccine doesn’t harm those who take it in Hong Kong, their lack of trust and fear of China will not be solved.

Science cannot heal our economies or directly help global relations

The race to vaccinate will not return us to normal and it will not solve the numerous problems humanity faces, some of which have been drastically exacerbated by the virus. Science cannot heal our economies or directly help global relations. Vaccine nationalism proves that science is a deadly tool when combined with toxic nationalism and weak democracy. Therefore, are our policymakers not more important than our scientists?

Short-term goals, namely vaccination, threaten to cloud the many other problems and opportunities we face in the recovery from the pandemic. The mental health crisis predicted by many psychiatrists in the years after the pandemic will not be solved by vaccines, but will require policymakers to follow a renewed focus on mental health and our livelihoods. This provides a huge opportunity to provide people with a better quality of life but reveals holes in the current scientific priorities of policymakers.

In the UK, very few of the over 80 specialists who have been part of SAGE are from the social sciences and only one represents the humanities. This comes despite lockdown measures and other anti-virus tactics posing economic and social problems that are perhaps more damaging than the loss of life caused by the virus. The direction and nature of our economic recovery, and the prioritisation of problems we face after the pandemic, must be viewed from a lens wider than scientific concerns.

In a recent article, Hetan Shah, head of the British Academy, highlighted the numerous possibilities that SHAPE (Social science, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy) offers to the post-pandemic world. These disciplines could also have helped policymakers combat the pandemic in a manner that was less harmful to the economy and people’s lives.

The crude nature of lockdown measures has proved that government priorities were not only misguided but haphazard and based in short-term quick-fix ideology. It has also proved that in situations like these, historical knowledge can provide a safer haven. In the case of coronavirus, the initial information and data coming from China was so limited that scientists were very limited in the advice they could provide.

We have reached a stage of such reliance upon science that it is easy to dismiss and even demonise other disciplines

Science is shaped by the contexts in which it is researched and applied, for example, in the funding used for projects and the aims of those who wield it. The potential for the use of vaccines as tools for international development and soft power exemplifies this.

We have reached a stage of such reliance upon science that it is easy to dismiss and even demonise other disciplines. Science has claimed and sought to answer questions that have plagued humanity for millennia. SHAPE disciplines simply cannot compete with their more debatable and explicitly politically charged theories.

Science is now advancing at such a rapid and even uncontrollable rate, its future direction and position in the hands of policymakers must be considered with the utmost caution. Mixed in too volatile a cocktail with politics, or without enough moral and contextual reasoning, science can not only be lethal, but misguided and immature. Policymakers should not only be aware of this but should seek to use it to their advantage.

Shah noted how the British Academy has mapped hundreds of SHAPE projects and ideas to help recover from the social impact of the pandemic. Embracing the wide range of solutions and routes we can explore in the post-pandemic world outside of hard sciences will not only provide more nuance but allow us to deal with future problems in more effective and even ethical terms.

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