Stopping the virus an art, not just a science

Scientists can’t win the battle against Covid-19 on their own. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Scientists can’t win the battle against Covid-19 on their own. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
To beat this pandemic we need both the sciences and the humanities, writes Tim Cooper.

We can be very grateful for scientists: we won’t be able to beat this pandemic without them.

It is the scientists who identified the virus and mapped its genetic structure. They developed protocols to help prevent its transmission: keep a distance of 2m, and wear a mask when you can’t do so. In an astonishingly short period of time they developed vaccines that are impressively effective. They will continue to improve those vaccines as new mutations emerge.

But scientists can’t win this battle on their own because in the end, to be successful, their amazing technical achievements have to be accepted and used by actual humans in the real world.

What use is a highly effective mask if people refuse to wear one? What good is a top-quality vaccine if you can’t persuade people to be vaccinated? How will we reach herd immunity if people’s sense of individualism trumps their sense of collective responsibility?

This is where the humanities come in. We need both the sciences and the humanities.

The humanities are all about understanding the human experience. The humanities specialise in complexity, ambiguity, and questions that seem to resist tidy, rationalistic forms of analysis. It thrives on pursuing broad questions. For example, in what circumstances, if at all, should individualism override collectivism? There’s no easy answer to that one.

New Zealand has been uniquely successful in its response to the virus. Why is that? Well, other Western countries have had access to much the same quality of science that we have, but they have approached the political, social, ethical, and legal challenges of the pandemic in quite different ways. So we can’t explain our success without including perspectives from the humanities.

First, there is geography (a subject taught at Otago within the Division of Humanities). A significant feature of the discipline of geography is the movements of peoples across the world and how people interact with their environment. As a small, isolated country with longstanding policies of border control we have had the advantage of being able to close our borders with great efficiency.

Then there is our political culture. New Zealand’s primary political value is equality. In contrast, the primary political value of the United States is liberty. So when we are called on to join the "team of fivemillion" we are generally willing to sign up. During lockdown last year we proved remarkably accepting of some very serious constraints on our personal freedom. In the United States, not so much.

When you’re dealing with people, words matter. The metaphor of a "bubble" helped everyone to understand what was required of us. In this country we pursued a positive communication strategy ("unite against Covid") rather than an alarmist one that relied on creating fear of the virus. That was a wise and effective way to go.

Our prime minister has a humanities degree — a bachelor of communication studies — and it shows. (I might add that Chris Hipkins, the Covid-19 response minister, has a bachelor of arts). Jacinda Ardern has demonstrated adept powers of communication that have helped us to accept the impositions that have been made upon us. Excellent communication skills will be needed more than ever as the vaccination campaign tries to reach those who are most reluctant or resistant.

And how do people sort through the mass of information they find in the media and on the internet? How can we distinguish a sound argument from a poor one? How do we weigh up competing presentations of the evidence? How do we discern a reliable authority from a misleading one?

These questions really matter, especially in an era when discerning reliable information from carefully crafted falsehoods can literally be a matter of life of death (consider the Delta variant proliferating among communities in the United States where vaccination rates are low). The task of philosophy — how to think well — has never been more important.

All of this illustrates what is generally true even without a global pandemic to demonstrate it. We need both the sciences and the humanities.

The humanities deal in what I call human skills. These are skills that a computer cannot replicate: skills like judgement, interpretation, intuition, empathy, critical thinking and communication. These are skills that are never obsolete and never go out of fashion. These are skills that will serve us well over a lifetime of learning and numerous changes in career. These are the skills that will best insulate us from losing our jobs to algorithms and automation.

And these are the skills that have made the difference here in New Zealand. We could never have achieved the success we’ve had against the virus without people who are skilled in the ways of the humanities.

We can be very grateful for humanities graduates: they have already played a central role in steering New Zealand to its enviable position in response to Covid-19, and we won’t be able to beat this pandemic without them.

 - Tim Cooper is professor of Church history and head of the School of Arts at the University of Otago.

 

Comments

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New Zealand has been uniquely successful in its response to the virus? What about Barbados, Holy See, Kirabati, Lichtenstein, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Monaci, Niger, Palu, Samoa, San Marino, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu? How is New Zealand "uniquely successful" when they have similar if not better results than NZ? They have closed their borders very efficiently with great success! Americans have a very admirable belief; they would rather live free or die. The "sheepeople" here blindly follow the government and freely give up their individual rights. You say our primary political value is equality...really? Then why do so many Maori, pacific islanders and people of colour live in poverty here? Why is racism so rampant? Total rubbish!

I would agree there is much in professor Cooper's opinion piece that you can take issue with, but the same can be said of your comment. The 13 countries you name as being as good if not better than NZ in their management of the pandemic cannot be accepted at face value, for instance comparing NZ to the Vatican City or Leichtenstein or Monaco is laughable. The same can be said of the tiny Pacific nations consisting of groups of coral atolls each with a population smaller than invercargill, some smaller than Oamaru. Of the two or three that might be comparable to NZ at a pinch, then yes they with NZ are unique. Hell. Even if you accept all 13 countries as being better than, or on a par with NZ then as a group, 14 countries doing that well out of the 200 countries in the world is unique.
How is accepting a directive to wear a mask in public or to keep a record of movements any more a demonstration NZers being "sheeple" than accepting the requirement to wear a seat belt in a car, a crash helmet in a bike, or even to pass a medical degree before you're allowed to practice medicine, or any of the myriad of other legal restraints on our freedom.
I do agree with your point on equality.

I keep looking at this UN report rating a nations response to COVID and I don’t see IRD as one of the experts consulted in the ratings. Strange that! I also see in this report that if you examine the infection rate per 1000 people, many of these “laughable” countries outshine New Zealand in their response. Like most lefties, its easier to compare “apples and oranges” instead of “apples and apples” to conflate the issue. Unfortunately, an “apple to apples” comparison of the infection rate clearly highlights New Zealand not being unique. Its sad that you would be so ignorant and arrogant to call these other nations efforts “laughable” in comparison to New Zealand. The effort of all countries should be recognized instead of the constant gloating of: “Were number one!” Very sad indeed!

Totally agree with your comments. The UN rates the success of nations to COVID not IRD. They make the exact same point as you do. We've been lucky and the lunatic fringe are afraid to admit it because it's politicly inconvenient. I'm surprised that there wasn't more ranting about "conspiracies" and "media bias".

Interestingly the same equally applies to the climate crisis. A Guardian headline reads - Are you in denial? Because it’s not just anti-vaxxers and climate sceptics.
Jonathan Freedland argues - To accept the facts about climate science without changing the way we live is also to deny reality.
"Now, there are some who still deny this plain truth, the same way that some insist coronavirus is a “plandemic” hatched by Bill Gates or caused by 5G phone masts or aliens. Both those groups are guilty of cognitive denial, failing to update their beliefs in the light of the evidence.
But there is another form of denial, what the philosopher Quassim Cassam calls “behavioural or practical denialism”. This is the mindset that accepts the science" – "but still does not change its behaviour. It can (also) operate at the level of governments.

Mate, answer the question; why do so many Maori and Pacific Islanders live in poverty? That's not equity! Also, he's not saying NZ hasn't done well fighting COVID. He's saying other island nations have done as well if not better. I know these facts don't fit your narrative but stop denying!

Who is in denial? There was no luck involved in our avoidance of COVID? Are you for real? Other than buying time, what has the government done? We still have the same number of health care works, ventilators, and hospital beds! Your whining about climate change (again) while the government has been twiddling its thumbs in the hopes that the vaccine solves the COVID problem. 25 of our infected people were vaccinated and they still got COVID. What does that say about the vaccine? Again I ask, who is in denial? People that don't want the vaccine have that right no matter what I say, you say or anybody else. Really, Qassim Cassam? Of all the great philosophers the one selected to justify your argument is Cassam? Somebody who specialized in the study of conspiracy theories? Somebody is in denial but it certainly isnt me!

You need to take a chill pill and calm down. Read things, take a moment to comprehend what is being said before shooting off.
Pat was making an observation in direct response to Prof Cooper's opinion piece and was totally unrelated to your comment and the views expressed in it in any way. Pat's question on denial was a quote from the Guardian newspaper, not an observation about you. Pat was saying the conditions that Prof Cooper set out in relation to science and the humanities having to work together applied equally to climate change as to Covid 19.
As a response to pat's comment, your rant about luck in the management of Covid 19 in NZ is bizarre and unrelated to Pat's observation in any way. It may have a remote relevance to Prof Cooper's opinion but known to Pats. Also, your criticism of Pat using Cassam is bizarre. In the context of Prof Coopers opinion piece, Cassam is highly appropriate and entirely valid.
The ODT rules for posting comments here requires that the poster make their comments on topic. I can only assume whichever sub editor was on duty when your comment was proofed was having a bad day.
You really need to do better.

Scientists have trashed their own reputation chasing grant money and politics. Search up “replication crisis”. Most scientific experimental conclusions do not repeat. The science is junk and statistics are bogus. You may need fantasy more than humanities.

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