It is one of the less salubrious facts of life that at times of profound concern and insecurity, charlatans, cranks and confidence tricksters come out of the woodwork. As the world cowers with fear at what the global threat of coronavirus will wreak, hucksters and snake-oil salesmen ply their trade with abandon. Whether it's colloidal silver or chloroquine in the West or cow's urine in India, reports are trickling in from all over the world about how a vulnerable public is being gulled into buying into myths that have no basis in fact.
It turns out, however, that nothing quite clears the public mind like a good old pandemic. Gradually, slowly, a consensus is growing around the world that at a time of crisis, our most critically important tool is fact—and by extension, a scientific temperament founded on rationality.
What's surprising is that it's taking this long. You would think that faced with what is one of the most dangerous, enigmatic pathogens in recent history, people would instinctively look to the most dependable, factual sources to figure out how to deal with this existential threat.
Alas, you would be quite wrong. Science can take a back seat for all sorts of reasons. While the whole world scrambled to put in place social distancing to ward off coronavirus transmission, extraordinary images appeared of over 50,000 people huddling in Lakshmipur, Bangladesh, for a religious prayer. In the US, evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr, is welcoming students back to Liberty University while universities and schools—and in many cases whole states—are closing down.
Obsessive ideological bias is another enemy of common sense. The US and UK are now ruled by parties whose faith in markets is close to doctrinal. It's almost as if the Bible had opened with: "And God said, Let there be markets." Anything run by the government is anathema.
Now that push has come to shove, free market ayatollahs have been obliged to swallow their pride. Britain's chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak has presented a budget that's given free marketeers short shrift.
"Even during the second world war, the role of the government did not extend to funding jobs across every sector of the economy," The Guardian observed. "Rishi Sunak … revealed that the government would establish a coronavirus jobs retention scheme for all employers, large or small, that will cover 80% of wages, up to £2,500 a month. The scheme will initially be open for three months, but could be extended, and will be backdated to 1 March."
The United States has the redoubtable President Donald J Trump at its helm, who on a given day has the ability to show the middle finger to science, fact, and even coherence and common decency. His daily press meet has been a clown show of breathtaking mendacity, self-contradiction and incoherence. His chums at the Republican Party and the friendly choir at Fox news have been only too happy to egg him on.
Yet surprise, surprise! After the standard kabuki dance and nail-biting drama of Congressional negotiations, the US Senate has passed at press time (which the House is expected to pass and Trump sign in double quick time) an unprecedented USD 2 trillion bill that looks straight out of a Soviet five-year-old plan.
"The legislation would send direct payments of $1,200 to Americans earning up to $75,000 … and an additional $500 per child," according to the New York Times. "It would substantially expand jobless aid, providing an additional 13 weeks and a four-month enhancement of benefits, extending them for the first time to freelancers and gig workers and adding $600 per week on top of the usual payment."
In addition, the law provides USD 350 billion in federally guaranteed loans to small businesses, establishes a USD 500 billion government lending programme for distressed companies and gives USD 100 billion to hospitals on the front lines of the pandemic.
Of course, the Republicans tried to pull a fast one—the initial plan had a USD 500 billion fund to bail out companies that was entirely at the discretion of the Department of Treasury, essentially a no-strings-attached slush fund for Trump in an election year, but Democrats cried bloody murder. Now, no companies controlled by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, members of the cabinet or Congress will be eligible for bailout funds.
This is not to say that the battle on behalf of science and reason is over. In the US, Trump is already getting antsy about the lockdown. He said he might open up businesses by Easter, which is less than three weeks away. Experts are aghast, warning that that could be catastrophic for public health, but respect for science, alas, has never been Trump's strong suit.
Nonetheless, for all of Trump's antics, it is Dr Anthony Fauci—an immunologist who is the chief of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—who has become the most trusted voice in the federal government (rumour has it that this is annoying the perennially thin-skinned Trump). In the absence of clear federal leadership, states are taking aggressive measures to mitigate the coronavirus disaster. Democratic governors are leading the way, but many Republican governors are not far behind.
The upshot is clear. As the global pandemic continues to wreak havoc, the public mind is getting focused on how science is the only way to understand, address and mitigate one of the biggest public health challenges we have witnessed in our lifetime.
We are finding out the hard way that when push comes to shove, there is no alternative to reason and facts. May this sober realisation endure.
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a digital daily for South Asians in the United States.