Brave New Virus

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, The Tempest (Image credit: Yuri Samoilov, Flickr/Creative Commons)

In this essay, Pedro Scuro debates the deep mistrust society displays towards intellectuals and the urgent need to revive people’s trust in science, public authorities and the media as mediators of a brave new world.

OUR SOCIETY MISTRUSTS intellectuals, although at times it closes the eyes and from the less discerning of them commands beauteous evangelical messages. Prophecies that the mainstream press, acting as the system’s watchful sentinel, schedules in order to make public opinion trust that “when all of this is over, the world won’t be the same”.[1] And what that world will be a favourite literatus is ready-and-willing to tell. An entirely different sphere in which we will finally learn how to handle “irresponsible politicians” who made us lose confidence in the mediators of our convictions: science, authorities and the means of mass communication. To make the difference the keyword shall be ‘solidarity’, for “if we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes”. Otherwise, if “we choose global solidarity it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century”.[2]  And how are we going to do that? In normal times, the forecaster says, confidence gone astray cannot be restored, but in times of crisis such as these we can “suddenly discover a hidden reservoir of trust and amity, and rush to help one another”.

Stratagems are always at the bottom of prophetic solutions. In this particular case the trick is to ‘naturalize’ the outbreak as something intimate that demands forceful measures – such as changing lenses to see things differently. To our prophet it means to revive “people’s trust in science, in public authorities and in the media”, whose intercession during “the greatest crisis of our generation” will certainly be more in tune and solidary with our misfortunes. Provided of course “irresponsible politicians” are kept under control, our mediators shall “empower citizens” and enable everyone “to make more informed personal choices and hold government more accountable”. Of course, the final decision will always be ours, so the coronavirus crisis can be the “tipping point” – considering that “when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health“. However, what about politicians, those incorrigible “egomaniacs” that should take all the blame for our lack of confidence in go-betweens? It is precisely at this moment that prophetic arguments collapse.

Science, to begin with, the most neutral ‘mediator’, source of probity and veracity, is in a deep critical state for a very long time, not because of politicians but of bad practices. Firstly, poor reproducibility – not long ago, for example, one hundred experiments described in three well-established journals of a determined science were reproduced but the “replication effects were half the magnitude of original effects”.[3] Secondly, abusive dependence on metrics, targets and indicators, which instead of supporting qualified assessment oppress consciences, distort behaviours and corrupt careers. Finally, peer review, which despite of being the best form of academic governance we have is haunted by complaints and scandal. All of this was exposed in a classical book by Jerome Ravetz, who with Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend revealed that the problems of science are not of epistemological nature, but in its practical flaws. Half a century later, the same sociologist now denounces the ‘corrupting pressures’ of an ‘industrialized science’, whose ‘perverse incentives’ of research absorption by a ‘gig economy’ subjects scientists to short-term jobs on contracts without any rights of security, and to the whims of principal investigators. Which is why, he adds, ‘quality’ became instrumentalised, ‘excellence’ impractical, and ‘impact’ is now the name of the game. Predicaments aggravated by science-based technologies of warfare, by financial manipulation and environmental predation, which despite of having increased the “possibilities of a civilisational catastrophe” have shown that “the king is naked”.[4] Not however if we rely on literati set to divert our attention from the causes and real agents of bad practices.

For seconds, administration, public and private, whose the evil jinni is corruption, “inherent in the mining, oil and gas, construction and engineering industries, all of which at high risk and subject to investigation worldwide”.[5] It is not so much a matter of country or government as it is of economic sector, so companies must be held responsible. Inasmuch as for multilateral organisations – in 2011, for example, the World Bank proudly announced that its arm in the private sector, the International Finance Corporation, had opened a $50 million credit line for Norberto Odebrecht, a giant Brazilian construction company. Funds immediately transformed in shares of 250 million, as guarantee for contracts for public works projects. All duly documented but soon deleted from the bank’s database: $30 billion “public-private partnerships” in Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Mexico, joining Odebrecht and four more contractors that received a few billions from a state development bank for operations in Africa and Latin America. The last stage were ‘contractual renegotiations’, notorious breeding ground for corruption which, in the words of Christopher Sabatini, of Colombia University, were “known to everyone” – meaning that “Odebrecht was handling corruption” with World Bank’s approval. However, the bank and IFC had nothing to fear; they were not at risk “because corruption investigations do not reach other countries involved, and bank representatives are shielded from lawsuits in client countries”.[6]

The last ‘mediator’ of the brave new world are the media, whose “satanic role” (in Bauman’s words) is “to revolutionize the mechanisms of perception of the world” and manipulate them. A consciousness-manufacturing industry, the media pervade all social sectors assuming functions of guidance and control – not exactly thanks to the worth of the information they convey, but to the ‘content’ (which McLuhan saw as the “piece of meat” the thief brings to distract the dog while he loots the house). An industry in deep crisis, not because of politicians but of structural factors related to a drastic drop in sales of the printed media, and to market saturation. Both compelled mainstream journalism to compete with much less formal and quasi professional media, all moving heaven and earth to keep clienteles and market shares. Hence the fall back to exploit sensationalism, concoct news unceasingly, trip up ‘enemies’ in politics and anticipate their punishment – as shown in recent years by the assault on young democracies on account of ‘corruption’. In truth, the media have been in crisis throughout history, since the times when the great producer and disseminator of news of the medieval world – the Catholic Church – began to lose its monopoly of the pulpits. A dependence not on politicians but on structural factors (technology, market and organization) made the Church and now the media of ‘network society’ lose the status of supreme authority as ‘source’ which ‘everyone’, rich and ragged, listens with reverence.

Early social soothsayers were ‘prophets of doom’ who announced Jehovah’s cruel punishments to the people – specifically to unworthy leaders (‘politicians’ of yore). Today’s futurologists are more attracted to Buddhist ‘renouncers’ bringing news of ‘the good life’. Laicized, but always hostile to the language of democracy, their slippery metaphysics overflow the strictly religious context and invade the realm of personal intimacy, whose subtleties can be understood only through the unlimited resources of literature. Ninety years ago, immersed in the perfect storm unleashed after the First World War, Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) did just that. He chose stability as the “primal and ultimate need” of civilization struggling to survive the multiple crises of a failed social, economic and political model, now miserably taken by surprise by a submicroscopic infectious agent. Crises aggravated by overpopulation and the means of control employed to subdue it – among which Huxley highlighted drugs and subliminal suggestion. He firmly demanded resistance to defend democracy from authoritarianism, once again at our gateways.

Now, in the real world of countries belatedly mobilising to contain the coronavirus and its nefarious consequences, one should not lose sight of a still more redoubtable scenario: another pandemic is just a matter of time. The global outbreak of COVID-19 is in no way a departure from normal life, old or new; infectious diseases are emerging and re-emerging more quickly than ever before. “Between 1980 and 2013, the number of annual epidemics has gone from fewer than 1,000 to over 3,000”, so that “infectious diseases such as Zika, MERS-CoV, SARS, cholera, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, influenza, and Ebola kill millions every year”. Their outbreaks decimate economies, trigger aftershocks, panic and institutional crises around the world. A dire situation highlighting “the disturbing reality about the fragility of our global economy”, the inadequacy of national social safety nets, and the persistent underinvestment in public health preparedness. To face those challenges we need, first and foremost, to reinforce the capacity of our public health systems to detect and contain diseases through central data surveillance systems linking laboratory data with population data and clinical measures. Secondly, strengthen communication and coordination between centers of control and prevention with nongovernmental organizations capable to guide our responses during public health crises and to “prepare evidence-based epidemic protocols and practices during times of peace”. Finally, address the underlying inequalities that make a crisis like this one so devastating for vulnerable people, including those in fields like hospitality, retail, and the gig economy. In the long term, “it means bolstering our social safety net—by expanding unemployment insurance, paid sick leave, health care access, small-business assistance, and food and housing security”.[7]

Pedro Scuro is M.Soc.Sc (Prague), Ph.D (Leeds), member of the Talcott Team of Law and Justice (São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Luanda, Rome), director of the International Society of Criminology (Paris) and the author of General and Legal Sociology, whose eighth edition (The Era of Captive Law) is published by Saraiva, São Paulo.


[1]  Francesca Melandri. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/27/a-letter-to-the-uk-from-italy-this-is-what-we-know-about-your-future

[2] Yuval Harari. https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75

[3] https://osf.io/ezcuj/wiki/home

[4] Jerome Ravetz. https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2016/jun/08/how-should-we-treat-sciences-growing-pains

[5] Andreas Pohlmann. Folha de S. Paulo, Sept. 22, 2015.

[6] Roberto Bissio (2017). Leveraging corruption – How World Bank funds ended up destabilizing young democracies in Latin America, http://www.socialwatch.org.

[7] Jane J. Kim e Michelle A. Williams (2020), https://fortune.com/2020/03/29/coronavirus-pandemic-public-health-preparedness.