The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best of modern science and global entrepreneurship. Within a year, highly effective vaccines were developed and distributed, at least in the rich countries. The vaccines have fairly low side effects and are effective at staving off infections and, most importantly, serious infections. A triumph of science, entrepreneurship, and, by implication, academia.
At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the profound flaws of modern science and global entrepreneurship. While the vaccines against COVID were available in the rich countries, this was not the case in poor countries. And in the rich countries, especially in the United States, large portions of the population are refusing vaccination, preventing societal immunity and leading to the spread of COVID-19 variants. They are enabled by ideology and misinformation spread, in part, by politicians and media personalities who, also, frequently mobilize against mask wearing, a low-cost measure that provides an additional protection against all kinds of respiratory illnesses, not only COVID. Even media who do not intend to spread misinformation stoke the vaccine hesitancy as they frame pandemic statistics in a misleading manner, out of statistical ignorance. Our scientific and economic systems are great at technological innovation and efficiencies, but we fail at the social, moral, and communicative aspects of dealing with a pandemic.
It’s almost a cliché that the COVID-19 pandemic is a dress rehearsal for the catastrophes associated with climate change (UN Secretary General Guterres was not the first nor the last person to use that metaphor). If it is a dress rehearsal, things are not looking good. While science and technology have an important role to play, the main problems that we’ll face are social, political, and moral. For example, how will rich states respond to migration from states in which many lose the ability to survive? What roles should borders play in a post-warming global society? Or, how can societies (or post-societal groups of people) adapt to changing circumstances caused by environmental and economic destruction? How will we live off an earth that produces less—how will we distribute what there is? Will we reduce what we use? Or will we play a global game of deadly hungry hippo? How will we set priorities as to what matters to us—when to share, when to fight, when to die?
These are hard questions, and science won’t be able to provide answers. Philosophy, sociology, political science, and similar disciplines will be needed. Academia, especially the social sciences and humanities, will be central, as may be the professions (what will hospitality mean in a post-warming society? how will caring look like?). But the work will have to go beyond academia, to include practitioners, community organizations, religious groups, and others on the ground, shaping society.