It is science, not lockdowns, that will save the world
The various new vaccines announced over the past two weeks give real hope of a return to normal life.
Of course, many practical questions remain. How will these vaccines be delivered? Do they stop the transmission or simply the symptoms of the virus? Exactly how effective will they be outside a controlled trial environment?
But despite these legitimate queries, the scientific community has made massive progress in a very short space of time, and should be celebrated.
The good news makes a very welcome change to the dreary and damaging pessimism offered by the epidemiologists.
Still, scarcely a day goes by without SAGE boffins popping up in the media pronouncing that the lockdown is not strict enough, it should have been brought in earlier, more will be needed when this one has ended. Even in the wake of the news of the Moderna vaccine, Public Health England’s Dr Susan Hopkins was warning that, when the official four-week lockdown ends on 2 December, the previous “Tier” system should be strengthened. That makes the prospect of households being able to mix indoors and businesses being permitted to reopen look far from likely.
As I have written before, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And the only tool the epidemiologists seem to have is lockdown.
Many of them do not seem to grasp that epidemics can ultimately be contained only by either behavioural change or by scientific innovation — and preferably a combination of the two.
Two admittedly somewhat extreme examples illustrate the importance of each. We used to throw the contents of our bedpans into the street from the bedroom windows, spreading all manner of disease. The change in our behaviour did indeed save lives.
But we also need scientific advancement to progress. David Ricardo, the greatest British economist of the nineteenth century and an immensely wealthy man, died at the age of 51 from an ear infection which would now be routinely cured in a few days.
The sharp contrast between restrictions which the epidemiologists want us to endure and the bright life which scientific innovation brings extends far beyond the current crisis.
It is at the heart of the debates over climate change, for example — or, more precisely, over what our response should be.
Climate change could indeed be stalled by reducing living standards to those of, say, Ricardo’s time, some 200 years ago. The Industrial Revolution was then half a century or so old. By then, people had just enough to eat in order to keep them alive and do some work. The famines which characterised all previous human history had been vanquished in western Europe. But life was pretty grim.
It was science and innovation that improved life beyond measure and that now enables us to enjoy modern living standards. That same innovation can also be harnessed to combat climate change.
Innovation need not be on the grand breakthrough scale of the Covid vaccines. A series of modest scientific advances can have a lot of impact.
For example, until recently Australia, despite its wonderful sunny climate, had very few solar panels. The reason was that energy from coal and gas was much cheaper. Now that the panels have gradually become much more efficient, the reverse is true. As a result, there is a massive boom in installation by households. Companies are building gigantic farms of panels in the deserts.
Hair shirts imposed by blinkered academics and those with a central planning mentality will not work. Ingenuity and innovation permit permanent solutions to many of the problems we face.