The West may no longer have scientific hegemony post-Covid

Thomas Sajan/Titto Idicula | Updated on April 24, 2020

Asian countries’ solutions for the pandemic are based on modern medical principles, whereas populist nations of the West are opting for controversial, untested solutions. This may cost the latter its scientific supramacy

On January 30, when declaring the coronavirus outbreak in China as a public health emergency of international concern, the WHO Director-General made a statement that his “greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems”. Yet, the larger trend appears to be a reverse of this. Three months into the epidemic crisis, Covid-19 has made huge inroads into the European and North American heartlands with advanced healthcare facilities, assuming pandemic proportions and killing thousands.

On the eastern front, things are not as bad. Apart from China, several East Asian countries have combated the pandemic more or less successfully, limiting community spread and the subsequent death toll. It is therefore worth asking whether the current pandemic is a marker of the changing Western hegemony over science.

A populist era

After the Spanish flu in 1918, no epidemic diseases have posed a serious scientific challenge to the West. Even AIDS, which initially created a major health problem in the western world, ended up causing more trouble in the Afro-Asian countries. The pandemic of H1N1 in 2009 was also contained effectively by various measures, including finding an effective vaccine.

The outbreak of Covid-19, however, happens at a particularly sensitive time, when many Western countries are governed by populist politicians who in general show a disregard for established scientific knowledge. During the onset of the health crisis, major national leaders from both sides of the Atlantic found themselves toying with populist and controversial solutions, albeit their countries are outstanding forerunners of modern medicine.

Ever since the outbreak of the coronavirus in the US, President Donald Trump insistently held on to the view that an anti-malarial drug named hydroxychloroquine would be a possible “game-changer” and that he is “a big fan” of that drug. Trump even mentioned that “if you wanted, you can have a prescription” for it, while Anthony Fauci, the White House health advisor and America’s leading expert on infectious diseases, says that the drug’s efficacy still needs to be proven.

What is surprising here is that such tall claims were proclaimed without enough scientific evidence, while flouting more established preventive methods such as social distancing. “If our response to a crisis is to ignore the scientific method that has gotten us this far, then we are setting ourselves up for additional and preventable problems,” to quote Ryan Marino, an emergency medicine physician from Ohio.

In addition, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, avoiding the political risk of mandatory lockdown, initially got along with the idea of herd immunity — something that the larger scientific community didn’t approve of. The massive death tolls in Italy, Spain, and France, too, primarily emanate from the initial reluctance to impose anti-populist measures like aggressive social distancing and strict lockdowns to contain the virus spread, as several experts affirm.

Eastern models

Even though Covid-19 emerged in China, and they stumbled and fumbled to deal with it in the beginning, the Chinese came out greatly successful in containing the pandemic. Of course, one could question China’s accomplishment by pointing to its obvious authoritarian undertones. But there are democratic countries in Asia like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, which kept the infection and mortality rates very low.

What is noteworthy about these Asian democracies is that they have managed to curb the spread of the coronavirus by strictly adhering to the principles of modern medicine, and not through any ‘exotic’ indigenous route. Besides broadening the testing regime, the South Korean and Singapore governments have gone for aggressive contact tracing and social distancing efforts. Taiwan, even with its geographical proximity with mainland China, remains a success story — thanks to its systematic, technology-driven and community-based containment measures.

The story of Kerala in South India, which flattened its coronavirus curve after seeing an initial spike, is another case in point. A major hallmark of Kerala’s exceptional fight against Covid-19 is the adoption of innovative and effective scientific practices. Perhaps the best example is ‘Break the Chain’ campaign to promote social measures to contain the virus, and the deployment of inexpensive walk-in kiosks used for large-scale sample collection.

“What could have been done in Europe and North America to control the pandemic was implemented with bravado by certain non-western governments. The failure of the western nations, especially the US, in administering scientific methods to tackle the pandemic, and the success of some Asian societies in doing so, would have palpable consequences,” says Jamil David, a Kerala-based public health researcher and a former faculty member at the University of Liverpool. His comment needs to be viewed against the backdrop of the recent observation by the renowned historian Yuval Noah Harari: “the world is losing trust in American competence”.

The post-Covid world

The Covid-19 phase marks a remarkably new turn, as many Asian countries design and implement their own scientific models to contain the virus rather than looking at the West for a solution. Such a scenario may even have a ‘subversive’ nature to it. For instance, the American College of Cardiology published and recommended a guidance for Covid-19 which was originally issued by the Chinese National Health Commission. It is perhaps for the first time that a clinical guideline from China is being used by US doctors.

The current pandemic may not be the marker of a major shift in the hegemony of the West in research and development. However, the way the coronavirus crisis is handled by the Asian powers challenges the Euro-American supremacy which prevails in the scientific domain. One thing is certain — the common perception of modern science as a predominantly western affair will forever be changed in the post-Covid world.

Sajan is an anthropologist with a PhD on the socio-political dimensions of viral epidemics. Idicula is a consultant neurologist at St. Olavs University Hospital in Norway and a fellow of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology

Published on April 24, 2020

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