COVID-19 and vulnerability of science



Before a tumultuous crowd at the stadium of the Rice University, Houston, Texas in 1962, John F. Kennedy regally bellowed, “We choose to go to the moon,  we chose to go to the moon in this decade and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skill, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and others, too.”

The rhetoric behind those words was the affirmation of American superiority over the Russians in space science. But beyond the American and Russian feud was also an edict on the maturation and divinization of science.   With space science, science replaces divinity as the omniscient, and rationalism reached its apogee as the canon for modern perspectivation. To be human is to be rational and to be rational is to be differentiated from non-rational. The rational/non-rational binary is not only hierarchical but also legitimizes the subjection of one to the other, and the relevance of one over the other.

I am merging different intellectual histories without proper delineation. However, the intention is to summarize, albeit improperly, the nexus between human rationality and science, and their divinization. That is, at the height of its glory, rationality, and science embolden the human sense of vanquishment. Human beings became gods.  The idea of human superiority is not intrinsically evil.  Scientific feats affirm the “godlike” nature in human beings, a nature confirmed by the scripture; “you are gods, you are all sons of the most high” (Psalm 86:6). This implies that the human mastery of the earth and space is not bad in itself. Instead, it is an expression of the goodness and godliness in human nature, for the human nature participates in the divine nature.  According to St. Thomas Aquinas, intrinsic to human nature is the search for truth. That is, a search for knowledge because human nature resists limitation. In Aquinas’ mind, the human urge to go beyond its limitation is the urge that drives it towards God. As such, while the scientific search aligns with the nature of human beings as seekers of truth, it does not exclude the search for God as THE TRUTH.

However, the human failure to transit from the finitude of science to the infiniteness of God has continued to putrefy their growth. For Pope Francis, this is the problem of technological paradigm, the reduction of everything to science. It is new idolatry. While our technological advancement assures us of inviolability and pretentious immortality, the last few anxious- weeks show that human beings are still mortal. The pandemic of COVID 19 sneaked in us and demystified our sense of certainty. Despite our mastery of the earth, our present situation shows that we are only a tiny, vulnerable part of the universe. There has been no time in the postmodern history (after 9/11) when we have been this vulnerable, anxious, and uncertain.  

My attempt is not to pillory science as a failure but to affirm the frangibleness of our scientific paradigm and to suggest the required paradigm shift to reset the human wheel of progress. While technological growth and economic prosperity have united the West and the developed world in modern history, COVID is dividing the same culture on race, age, and class. The disease has become a bullying rod against the Chinese. Despite claiming its spot as the oriental ally of the West, despite its massive contribution to the medical and other forms of technological growth, Chinese citizens are labeled as incubators of the deadly virus.  Even in Africa, its testing ground for its deep pocket and technical-know-how, China is a pariah nation. COVID is the ground for the new form of racism.

Having been identified as the most vulnerable age group, the 60+ years are stereotyped into the gangs of vulnerable and disposables. To be within such age bracket elicit some pity similar to those on the death row and some necrological cynicism as if their death will make the world better. What could be funny or profiting from the death of an age group? 

Two requirements of the physical and social distancing are working from home and working on-site for those with the essential jobs.  However, low cadre workers and non-white collar jobs do not fall into any of these categories. Most of the non-white collar jobs are daily earners, that is, they must work to get paid. The implication is clear, while the middle and upper classes continue to earn, the low cadre workers would not. To survive, they may go borrowing; that is, more debt and inability to escape the poverty circle.

Economists have predicted a reverse in the world economy, and the signs were evident in the first few weeks of the pandemic. The fact that Norwegian airline axes 50% of its workforce at the early stage of the crisis shows the ominous signs that the air /transport industries and some others will be heavily impacted.  The price of crude oil has fallen to $23, whereas Nigeria benchmarked its budget at $55 per barrel income. To be able to fund part of the budget, the country has devalued the Naira so that it will not deplete its foreign reserve below a certain depth. Since it is making less income than estimated, the Nigerian government will not able to recruit new employees. And with possible job losses in non-governmental industries, the Nigerian unemployment index acquires a new rise.

While this critical moment needs the best of our scientific and medical expertise, there is also the need to go beyond the technological paradigm. To reset the wheel of human progress, we need to be more human, which is resisting the dualism of rational/nonrational.  That is, we need the emotive, reasonable, conscientious, non-narcissistic, fair, soulful, and spiritual human. We will win this warfare only by going beyond ourselves, a search for the divine, and care for the other.

Father Fidelis writes from:

University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame, IN 

[email protected], www, areopagusinclinations.org

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