The arrival in 2019 of a novel coronavirus and its potentially deadly disease Covid-19 has led to an outpouring of commentary. The impacts on daily life have been enormous, hence it is natural for people to try to understand the significance of these events from their own perspectives.
For several decades, I’ve been studying public scientific controversies, such as the ones about nuclear power, pesticides and fluoridation. There are some regular, often predictable, features of longstanding controversies. Usually there are two sides, with one side supported by most scientific experts and one side backed by groups with wealth and power. For example, in the pesticide debate, most scientists support the pesticide approach to dealing with pests, and this approach is backed by the companies that manufacture the pesticides. This is the most common configuration: scientific experts align with powerful groups. Two exceptions are the debates over smoking and climate change. In each one, most experts are on one side while the most powerful corporate groups with a stake in the issue are on the other side.
It’s debatable: do masks work?
From the point of view of controversy studies, what is most interesting about Covid-19 is the proliferation of contentious issues in a wide range of domains. Here I can do no more than list a few of these, without commenting on how they might pan out. Because the issues are changing so rapidly, I’m not giving links to sources; it’s easy to find them with a few keywords.
* Seriousness. Commentators differ about how serious Covid-19 is and will be. If most people eventually are infected and the mortality rate is one percent, the ultimate worldwide death toll will be huge. On the other hand, some suggest that the number of infections has been underestimated, so the mortality rate is much lower than one percent, perhaps not much different than for seasonal flu. Judgements about the seriousness of Covid-19 influence views about a number of the other disputed issues, including control measures and civil liberties.
* Control measures. Some experts and citizens have called for stronger isolation measures, or for them to be rolled out sooner. Others raise concerns about the adverse effects of the measures, especially in hurting the economy.
* Civil liberties. Some governments have introduced new measures to track individuals, for example to see whether infected individuals are maintaining their isolation. Concern has been raised about the curtailing of civil liberties, and that the surveillance powers might be used for other purposes or to continue after Covid-19 dangers have waned.
* Economic equality. Measures against Covid-19 have caused immense economic disruption, including severe hardship in some sectors, for example the tourism industry and spectator sports. Many people have lost their jobs, and businesses have gone bankrupt. This has led to calls for introduction of a universal basic income (UBI), namely a subsistence payment to every member of the population. With a UBI, most other welfare measures could be eliminated. Some governments have introduced measures to protect some hard-hit individuals or sectors of the economy, but so far have not moved to introduce a UBI.
* Equity. The benefits of control measures are primarily to those who would be seriously ill or die from Covid-19. Those most vulnerable are mainly older people with pre-existing health conditions, whereas the costs of control measures fall on a broad swathe of the population. Simplistically, this is a case of the young making sacrifices for the benefit of the old and infirm. Some might contrast this with intergenerational equity in the climate debate, in which climate sceptics, who tend to be older and richer, do not want to make sacrifices for future generations.
* Treatment. The standard medical methods for treating Covid-19 include drugs, oxygen and, if necessary, ventilators and other life-support technology. Various alternatives have been touted. There have been reports that Chinese doctors have been using intravenous vitamin C in large doses. This is considered “alternative” and shunned or condemned by mainstream figures. Similarly controversial is the use of homeopathic remedies in India.
* Environmental factors. The standard medical approach is to treat each patient as needed, to promote vaccination (when vaccines are available) and, especially in the case of the coronavirus, to institute physical-distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus. In alternative health circles, there has been attention to the role of environmental factors in making individuals more susceptible to infection. Two factors have received the most attention: 5G and air pollution.
* Vaccination. Having a vaccine is widely assumed to be a way to end the pandemic. There are disagreements about how soon a vaccine can be ready and about whether it is even possible. Critics raise concerns about the hazards of vaccines, especially ones prepared in urgency and insufficiently tested.
* Trust. Governments and health authorities say it’s important that their rules and recommendations be followed. In other words, they say “Trust us.” Some commentators deplore those who question the authorities and warn people against misinformation. Trust in authorities has been declining for decades, and in the US there is a very low level of trust in governments and pharmaceutical companies. Many individuals examine a range of information and make their own judgements. The issue of trust might be considered a meta-level disagreement or divergence, as it underlies many of the other areas of dispute.
The value of public discussion
Some commentators say that government and health authorities need to speak in one voice, because disagreement undermines the effectiveness of measures implemented. On the other hand, there are benefits from disagreement and debate. In a situation of uncertainty, it can be valuable to hear a range of viewpoints, even ones that might seem ridiculous on the surface. Many members of the public have time on their hands, are stuck at home, and have an intense interest in an issue that has disrupted their lives and sometimes their livelihoods, not to mention risks to health. They are bound to explore information on the web, and to use their own judgement about what to believe. In this context, it is valuable for contentious issues to be openly discussed and for views to be presented and challenged with evidence and logic.
In many controversies, partisans tout evidence supporting their own position and attack weak points in the opponent’s position. This can rally supporters but is not convincing to opponents. A more rigorous approach is to spell out the strong points in the opponent’s position, ideally to the opponent’s satisfaction, and address them systematically. For example, it is easy to dismiss concerns that 5G is part of a plot to harm people but more rigorous to address arguments that 5G might have some impact, maybe small, on people’s immune systems. (I use this example because I haven’t examined any of the claims about 5G!)
Some people will be receptive to sensible comments. There should be no fear of dissent and debate, as long as participants engage with each other openly and respectfully.