Politics, Religion & Populism At Crossroads With Science: The Battle For Supremacy In The COVID-19 Pandemic

Dr Grant Marewanhema

MAJORITY of the people across the world are now familiar with COVID-19, and many are slowly losing interest. Across many nations the initial fears that gripped populations are dying a natural death, and the momentum to protect the communities is slowly dying as people yearn for return to normalcy.

By Dr Grant Murewanhema

Some parts of the world are seeing remarkable declines in cases, some experiencing second waves, whilst some are still in the first wave. However, it is critical to realise that this is the worst pandemic in human history so far. Current WHO sitreps estimate 9 million infections, with millions of hospitalisations and an estimated 500 000 deaths globally.

COVID-19 is a serious global security and health threat, therefore its not surprising that it raised unprecedented political interest. Any global security issue naturally is taken over by politicians, therefore its not surprising that world over, Presidents, Defence Forces and other security forces assumed key leadership roles in the control of the pandemic. Announcements of key public health interventions such as lockdowns were made by Presidents, and regular addresses by Presidents became the norm.

Of course some consulted public health experts in their countries, whilst some others copied other presidents and imposed baseless interventions in their countries. Some took offence, and blamed China for the global disaster.

Religion has always played key roles in control of diseases in society, and compliance with interventions by religious groups is critical for control. Outbreaks can be made or broken at religious gatherings, and some religious leaders, particularly in Africa, have been notorious for refusing key public health interventions for example, vaccinations and hospital attendances. News of a rapidly spreading and killing virus must have scared many as they quickly complied with regulations. Surprisingly, some who are popular for selling concotions and tonics with claims of healing powers went into hibernation. May the true men of God prevail.

Some chose to side with conspiracy theorists but from the comfort of their homes. Initial conspiracy theories including the 5G claims and spread of the antiChrist quickly sank into oblivion, as people realised that we are dealing with a highly infectious virus.

Those who were pushing the antivaccines agenda have also gone quiet, as people realised that a lot of malicious rumours being circulated were baseless. Of course, the information epidemic (infodemic) has become dangerous in society and could lead to a reversal in the gains of public health in a very short period of time. I am a Christian, grew up as one and I give God His time, but I say science must always be given its place in society. In disease control, science must be given the lead.

In a decade where we can easily visualise the smallest of viral particles under the electron microscope, and we can sequence viruses fully in the shortest period of time, fiction and conspiracy theories must be accorded no place in critical periods such as a pandemic. Clear evidence of the coronavirus causing COVID-19 emerged early on in the outbreak, and if the world (including China) had become serious early enough we could have avoided many infections and deaths. Sadly it took long for some, including politicians and senior scientists, to realise the magnitude of the crisis as they chose to believe fiction and conspiracy theories.

Countries that took the outbreak seriously from the beginning and imposed public health interventions early enough have better statistics today. It must be a lesson to politicians all over to lend their ears to science as appropriate today.

Some leaders chose populism over science and reason. One notorious and famous President took over the role of making announcements prematurely before science verification, and another one in Africa went on to claim that their country had found a cure for COVID-19 when no appropriate research had been conducted on the artemisia plant with regards to treatment of COVID-19. It would seem that politicians all over took control of the pandemic, rightfully so as it is a global security threat, but wanted to take over the science too. For some it became a battle of power and politics rather than a genuine battle for control against a deadly pandemic.

Every society has its religious and political games, but under appropriate circumstances science must be allowed to prevail. Scientists do not claim to know everything, but given the right space, time and support, they can work hard and find solutions to problems bedeviling us. As lessons for the future, we should allow science to prevail over fiction, religion and battles for political supremacy and populism.

(Dr Grant Murewanhema, Writer, Epidemiologist, Public Health Specialist)

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