Modernity and its enemies

In those crucial days in mid-December last year — when the first cases of the novel coronavirus began appearing in Wuhan, China — the protocol followed by the hospital authorities required them to immediately report the matter to the local Communist Party bureau while keeping the information in the strictest confidence.

Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the first doctors to notice the strange pneumonia among his patients (and by whom he unknowingly got infected), felt compelled to share what he was seeing with his former classmates in medical school. For this, he was arrested, forced to confess to a “crime,” and severely reprimanded for spreading rumors and causing alarm. But, his timely warnings prompted his colleagues to take extra precautions, and saved not a few lives.

He himself later died from the disease. Praised on social media for his extraordinary courage and sense of duty, Dr. Li was, upon his death, recognized and hailed as a hero by the Chinese government.

The first impulse of the local Party officials had been to sit on the information, fearful of incurring the ire of their superiors should the reports turn out to be premature. It took about two more weeks before the Chinese government would officially confirm the outbreak in Wuhan. On Jan. 1, the authorities shut down the Wuhan live animal market, where the virus was believed to have originated. A few days later, they imposed a lockdown on the whole city. But, at around the same time, millions of Chinese travelers on holiday were already headed to various destinations in China and abroad.

Indeed, the first novel coronavirus cases to be reported in the Philippines in late January were of three Chinese tourists from Wuhan. One of them died from the disease at the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila. It was clear that they had brought the infection with them. Whether they got it directly from the Wuhan wet market, or indirectly from somebody who did, was not known at that point. Filipino doctors wished that the virus had not yet spread through community transmission.

There is a continuing debate on what difference it would have made if the news of the Wuhan outbreak had been reported first to the World Health Organization rather than to the local Party officials, who took time to filter it. The Chinese national government strongly rejected any suggestion that it deliberately concealed crucial information about the virus, even as it acknowledged the possibility that grievous mistakes might have been committed at the local level.

The point being made here is quite simple: In the modern world we live in, disease outbreaks anywhere belong, in the first instance, to medical science and to the world body that has been designated to monitor and prevent such outbreaks from becoming a pandemic. It is in these specialized communities where these issues must be studied, openly discussed, and debated — free from the distortions of political, economic, and other interests. When the latter are allowed to interfere in the flow of scientific information, the consequences are usually disastrous.

Governments may cite scientific evidence to justify public policy, and business corporations may use scientific discoveries to create profitable enterprises. But, science best fulfills its function in society when its operational autonomy is respected, meaning, its truths are not dictated by politics, economics, religion, etc.

It is this same issue that is involved in the race to produce a vaccine against COVID-19. A lot of money is being poured by governments and private investors alike in the race to create a safe and effective vaccine. We can’t help noticing that governments seem to treat the matter as an extension of great state rivalry, a test of political superiority in the global stage. Big pharmaceutical companies, on the other hand, see the vaccine not only as a badge of scientific achievement, but, more importantly, of corporate profitability and prestige.

One can thus imagine the kind of pressure that is applied on the scientists and specialists who are involved in this complex undertaking. They must work fast so the benefits from the vaccine can immediately be shared with countries eager to reopen their economies. But, they must tread very carefully, lest they reap the costly consequences of releasing a harmful product. As hard as it may be, they must ignore political and economic considerations if they are to remain faithful to their scientific calling.

In sociology, the term used is “functional differentiation.” As societies evolve and become more complex, functional differentiation increasingly takes precedence over traditional forms of differentiation like segmentation and stratification. What we call modernity is none other than the primacy of functional differentiation.

Today, we are in the midst of an era when some of the most fundamental social functions—science, education, mass media, the economy, art, and, to some extent, law and religion—are increasingly differentiated at the global level. But not so in the field of politics, where a world government is a distant dream.

Nations are probably the last expressions of segmented differentiation, the way families, clans, and ethnic loyalties were in more traditional societies. The world remains hopelessly divided into nation-states. We see this in the way governments in the world’s most powerful countries instrumentalize their scientific communities and economic organizations by subjecting them to the necessities of state power. It is a dangerous game they are playing. We must all beware.