Heed the science, not the politics

"Hello everyone, this is Li Wenliang, an opthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital," read the post late last December.

The 34-year-old doctor had witnessed seven cases of patients quarantined with what seemed like a SARS-like epidemic while making his rounds at the hospital, and he tried to warn colleagues in an online chatroom that they should be wearing protective clothing.

Three or four days later, he was summoned by local police and accused of "making false comments" and disturbing the social order. He was told that if he continued "spreading rumors" about a disease, he would be "brought to justice" for "sharing false information."

The authorities forced him to sign a warning statement.
"We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice - is that understood?"

Dr. Li, one of eight people who police said were being investigated, for "spreading rumours, signed underneath, "Yes, I do."
Dr. Li returned to work and began coughing and developed a fever. He had caught the virus from a patient he was treating for glaucoma and was hospitalized for three weeks before succumbing to colonavirus. He died a little over a month after his warning to colleagues.

As of this writing, it is known to have killed 1,384 people -- nearly all in China. And at least 64,300 people are known to have become infected in Asia alone.

“If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency,” Li told the New York Times from his hospital bed.

Chinese authorities have since admitted their punitive response was a grievous mistake. Beyond the nearly 1,400 deaths in a nation of 1.3 billion, a profound impact is already being felt on the powerful Chinese economy, with serious aftershocks expected around the world.

A transcript of an internal Chinese Communist Party speech even revealed that Chinese President Xi Jinping knew about and was directing the response to the virus almost two weeks before he commented on it publicly, raising questions about whether the central government failed to contain the coronavirus at home and abroad.

The contest between authoritarianism and science is nothing new. In the Sixteenth Century, Nicolaus Copernicus faced the wrath of the powerful Catholic church.

But one has only to look at the official response here to scientific evidence that over time has been confirmed and has become more obvious and ominous to realize that dangers of politicians and government authorities running roughshod over science and scientific fact.The Trump Administration has banned use of even the the term “climate change” while also pulling the United States out of the 200-nation Paris Climate Accord.

As United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Patrick Verkooijen of the Global Center on Adaptation wrote in The New York Times recently, “If average global temperatures rise by the end of the century by another one degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, there will be no winners on this planet. Only losers. And those immigrants the president rails against? Expect the trickle to become a flood. Climate change could force 1.4 million people to abandon their homes in Mexico and Central America because one-third of all jobs in the region remain linked to agriculture," with their livelihoods made more precarious.

Rising global temperatures also promise a greater likelihood that diseases like the coronavirus will spread because of the geographic and seasonal distribution of vector populations that spread pathogens: fleas, ticks, bats and mosquitoes and the like.

Greta Thunberg told the World Economic Forum last year, "“I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is." She added at last month's summit, "I’ve been repeating these numbers at nearly every speech I’ve given for the last 18 months. I know you don’t want to talk about this,” yet 2019 was follows the hottest year on record for the world’s oceans, the second-hottest year for global average temperatures, and wildfires from the U.S. to the Amazon to Australia.

And yet the U.S. government is now led by idealogues who deny overwhelming scienfic consensus.

There's some irony in the fact that the expansion of science in our lifetime is leading to the exploration of space, the discovery of which is an outgrowth of Copernicus's discovery.... Privatization of space exploration by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, along with the recent beginnings of a Startrek-like government Space Force, are a continuation of the scientific push outward from Planet Earth. They also seem in some ways dismissal of natural laws -- especially natural limits to overpopulation, as well as how much we can despoil our home and use resources like clean air and water that for a generation were been regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Until the current White House and its allies in Congress, began diminishing the role of science in federal policymaking, disrupting research projects, limiting the influence of scientists over regulatory decisionmaking and putting gag rules on what researchers may say publicly about climate science and the environment.

The lessons are clear: We need to heed scientists over dictators.

Unlike China, we who live in a democracy are in control of our government -- at least theoretically, at least still in 2020. We still can call for the truth to prevail, we can still assure that facts are pre-eminent.

Until, with our reality-show presidency bent on introducing authoritarianism, we turn our future to science fiction. https://www.pbs.org/video/chinas-covid-secrets-fvxx8y/


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