Updated4#Covid-19# Special: #Gain of Function#
Updated: Jul 26, 2021
‘Living with Covid#'; and how to achieve a gain of function
The global pandemic has produced many a new problem for us to contemplate and overcome, not least the realisation, indeed, the understanding that Covid-19 and its variants are here to stay: a moment of existential uncertainty, if not intense confusion, and anxiety about what the future holds for us. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson talks of ‘living with Covid'[i]. Indeed I have argued that we need to rationalise and internalise the new reality of living with a pandemic and possibly death. First though, it seems sensible to argue we need to reach a clear understanding based on scientific and medical knowledge, that is, the empirical data, of what the virus is doing, and agree upon the risks we are taking in reopening society and, regaining our so-called ‘freedoms'. The Prime Minister argued recently that if we didn’t end lockdown now we never would. Is this though, an accurate assessment of the choices we have available to us?
In a previous essay, I argued we did have knowledge of a coming pandemic and the virus, and consequently we have been able to develop the vaccines to fight it so successfully; and the government, until recently, supported this success with lockdown measures and social distancing. Thus in a continuation of this argument on knowledge, this essay argues that even if we were to use hindsight, rather than admitting we knew of the risk all along; science and medicine are to be trusted, and the anti-expert discourse to be countered, along with the notion that removing all restrictions now is the correct course of action.
The Inspiration: viral communications
When the pandemic began, Steve Fuller wrote ‘When a Virus goes Viral’[ii]. This article argued the central discourse of the pandemic in the UK focused on the ability of the NHS to cope and not to buckle under what was then a crisis with which we as a society, had never faced before. Fuller argued that social media had enabled health workers, and not just government, to construct this discourse with their own perspective on the developing crisis: the virus had in fact gone digitally viral. It seems now that the central discourse of politics, media and social media, and even some scientists is that the pandemic is over, and the virus containable; the notion constructed by the discourse that the NHS might be overwhelmed has been superseded by a message of hope. However, is it correct to move forward abandoning all precautions? This dilemma is evaluated below.
This is because over a year on it seems social media and media perform a very different function: they can, as well as disseminating accurate information, and emphasise the importance of for example, the NHS, enable the distortion of information: data on, for example, what the infection, hospitalisation and death rates are. This essay argues that the virus has gone viral in another sense therefore. ‘Viral’ after all has a number of connotations. ‘Viral’ can be used in the epidemiological sense, of course; with reference to social media, and indeed, the mainstream media, however it can be interpreted more darkly, as in the sense of a toxic infection of misinformation, and the false hopes of many false dawns, spreading out its tentacles and permeating society[iii]. It seems churlish to deny hope, and of course no one likes a Cassandra prophesying doom, and no one likes a know it all; however, no one really wants to be accused of indulgence in schadenfreude when proved right.
It is with this in mind that it is argued that misinformation on the state of Covid-19 is potentially toxic to a recovery of society post-lockdown and ‘post-pandemic'. Galeotti (2018) argued that political self-deception (SD) is also manifest in the public realm. SD can be defined as ‘the distortion of reality against the available evidence and according to one’s wishes' (Galeotti, 2018) suggests a latent intent in those who pursue a physical and intellectual course contrary to the prevailing evidence. Just what these intentions might be is considered towards the end of this essay.
So, it is not a question of who is right and who is wrong, but rather, a matter of learning; gaining knowledge from experience. Marx wrote that first history is repeated as tragedy then as farce. We have seen the farcical side of the pandemic in so many ways, not least the contradiction of government policy and in social distancing rules, which would be funny if not carrying possibly fatal consequences; surely no one wants to see this famous quote of Marx reversed.
Some scientists are urging caution over the final lifting of all lockdown restrictions on the 19th July, particularly the legal requirement to wear face-masks. A previous essay here argued this was dangerous given the transmissibility of the Delta variant. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised against relaxing these rules. The British Medical Association (BMA) say the government’s decision makes no sense[iv] and on and on the advice in the face of an extremely transmissable variant is to keep on wearing face-masks. The variant spreads more easily in the air. Single jabbed people have as little as 33 percent protection. Only 50 percent the population has received two vaccinations. There is a growing list of people who have received two vaccinations only to catch Covid-19iiii. Is there an acceptable level of infection and even death? Infections have risen week on week recently as have hospitalisations, and, deaths continue. The new Health Secretary says positive cases could rise by 100,000 a day after restrictions are lifted (see BBC News website); and now a Guardianiiiii (a research based broadsheet) analysis predicts 2 milion cases by the end of summer with 10 million self-isolating; coincidently, perhaps, the Guardian is today now reporting that ministers are to 'tweak' the Covid app to make it less sensitive. Is this really a sensible way to proceed, and is it reasoned and rational? Living with Covid is one thing, committing to suicidal polices another entirely.
The argument here is that yes, we have to live with the virus but we don’t have to throw caution to the wind, and one unnecessary death is one too many. Behavioural scientists caution the government in taking this path. The media, social media are like an echo chamber for the message that freedom is only round the corner. This is the argument that the message of hope has gone viral: the gene is out of the bottle; so, have we crossed the rubicon? Is it too late - have we gone too far to turn back? And all because, paradoxically to the desires of a nation we cannot practice deferred gratification; and even though quarantine restrictions have been employed in Europe since the 1400s (see Honigsbaum in the Observer, p.53, 11.07.21)
Thus the raison d’etre of this essay is this: virologists who work on viruses and manipulate them for future use call this ‘gain of function’. This means learning from the virus and understanding how it works in order to ameliorate its effects or even use the virus for less salutary purposes. In the same way, arguably, we need to acquire a gain of function in terms of our experience and knowledge of the status of the virus now as a society. Moreover, use what we have learnt from the past 15 months of collective struggle and work, if freedom is to be truly found again.
So what exactly could be the intention of those who refute the scientific evidence on SARS-COV-2 and vaccines? Could it be a strongly held desire on the part of the public to find liberation; fulfil our inner desires, repressed for so long (Marcuse, 1955)? And could these desires be diametrically opposed to the State’s, whose bidding they do and which arguably does not want to pursue a libertarian agenda for the sake of principle and freedom, but to rescue competitive economic society from the doldrums, and repress those very desires? It is argued that this is exactly the case, concomitantly with a clumsy, reckless attempt by the State to reintroduce the once tried, and fatally flawed and failed, herd immunity policy.
So, in arguing how we have seen how our rapid developing knowledge of SARS-COV-2 has produced effective vaccines to combat it; this mirrors Popper’s conception of the daily shifting sands of knowledge. Knowledge that finds its target in the end, that is, develops to reach a breakthrough, such as the neutralising antibodies the Covid-19 vaccines produce. However, Popper also argued that society is like a bridge over a swamp, and one that needs its supports constantly shoring up: thus we need to approach the problem with epistemic humility (modesty) while countering the ‘epistemic arrogance’ that rejects scientific, medical and expert knowledge, and keep building knowledge to support society, not bring the bridge crashing down into the swamp.
Galeotti, A.G. 2018. Political Self-Deception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Marcuse, H.,1955. Eros and Civilisation: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston; Beacon Press.
Popper, Karl. 1945. The Open Society and its Enemies: The Spell of Plato. Vol. 1. London: Routledge.
Popper, Karl. 1945. The Open Society and its Enemies: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath, Vol. 2. London: Routledge.
https://www.des.gen.in/post/knowing-when-a-pandemic-arrives-and-how-to-survive-it-when-it-leaves https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/social-media-covid-19-a-global-study-of-digital-crisis-interaction-among-gen-z-and-millennials https://social-epistemology.com/2021/06/30/the-deadly-consequences-of-wish-fulfilment-anna-elisabetta-galeottis-political-self-deception-des-hewitt/ https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm
[i]https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-57718061 [ii]https://social-epistemology.com/2020/03/17/when-a-virus-goes-viral-life-with-covid-19-steve-fuller/ [iii]https://www.brookings.edu/research/how-misinformation-is-distorting-covid-policies-and-behaviors/ [iv]https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-57718061