By Allawi Ssemanda.
Covid-19 pandemic which has forced almost entire world to embrace unprecedented measures such as lockdowns and encouraging social distancing is arguably the world’s worst pandemic in our modern history. Counting the cost occasioned by this pandemic sofa, from human loss to economic, social and psychological impact, the loss is overwhelming. 4.16 million deaths have so far been reported with over 194 million cases globally.
What is encouraging is that from onset, arguably, the world’s response has been swift – ranging from new technologies to support public health, speedy novel approaches to development of vaccines, and sacrifice by health workers. Unity exhibited by world leaders in forging ways on how to counter the pandemic provided a clear case that with unity, the world can achieve much! Sharing of important knowledge and extending assistance such as medical supplies from within south-south cooperation countries with China holding the flag was a plus. The pandemic arguably gives an insight of the success the world can achieve if we work as a team. The Covax initiative is a one of examples in this case. Despite the initiate not delivering enough vaccines as promised which some analysts have attribute to vaccine nationalism and hoarding especially in some western capitals, possibly, the world is now aware that Global challenges are best handled when we work as a family.
Sadly, despite global collaboration in containing Covid-19 pandemic, unless swiftly stop what appears to be glaring mistakes such as those promoting unbacked conspiracy theories like “lab leak” attributing it to be the origin of coronavirus and those downplaying science, politicizing the pandemic, and social media manipulation which has played dangerous role of promoting misinformation and fake news, the fight against Covid-19 pandemic maybe derailed.
Whereas it is acceptable for people to question and as Indira Gandhi who taught us; “the power to question is the basis of all human progress”, when it comes to science, there is no room for guesswork or playing politics. As Carl Edward Sagan, a renown American scientist once observed; “The suppression of uncomfortable ideas maybe common in religion or politics, but it is not the path to knowledge and there is no place for it in the endeavour of science.” Therefore, the world to overcome Covid-19 pandemic and possible other future pandemics, there is need to respect and listen to science which sometimes may go against our wishes especially political.
In context of defeating Covid-19 and studying the origins of Coronavirus, politicians must leave WHO to their work independently, free from any pressure and unsolicited guidance. Unfortunately, this is not the case and some countries continue to issue statements that if taken into consideration, they may end up influencing the findings of planned study. For example, apart from pulling U.S’ membership from WHO, some senior politicians in Washington including then President, Donald Trump consistently and publicly branded coronavirus “the Wuhan virus” and sometimes “Chinese virus.” It is common sense that with such statements even before any investigation by WHO, the U.S had already declared their position or set a stage on origins of the virus. Of course, White House tasking CIA to investigate origins of coronavirus is like asking a dentist to do heart surgery. Total guesswork and broadly, an insult to international intelligence.
In law, discussing issues before inquiry is against the principle of sub-judice, which bars legal practitioners or the general public from discussing an ongoing case or inquiry since such discussions may prejudice officers involved and hence, affecting the outcome of the inquiry.
Arguably, it is continued political interference often made through their public speeches that in long run is delaying the world’s effort in defeating Covid-19 and origins of coronavirus. A case in point is World Health Organization’s (WHO) notification to member states of its workplan on phase two of organization’s study on origins of coronavirus with emphasis on “lab leak”, a theory largely advanced by some politicians against scientists. While finding the truth and origins surrounding coronavirus is a positive step which will help in containing Covid-19 pandemic and other related future outbreaks, such findings to win public’s trust, the process must be independent of any kind of covert or overt political influence and let science and medical experts do their work.
Important to note is that; during the 73rd session of World Health Assembly (WHA) held on 17th -21st May 2021 requested WHO Director General to work closely with other countries and identify the zoonotic source of the virus; and the route how or how the virus was introduced to human population.
Basing on WHO’s phase one study whose findings concluded that it was “extremely unlikely” that coronavirus started in a laboratory, one expects WHO’s further studies to concentrate on likely coronavirus pathway to human beings other than the obvious conspiracy theories of “Lab leak.” From a historical perspective, almost all emerging human virus the world has seen in the last five decades – including 2003 Sars outbreak and Mers in 2012, scientific studies concluded that animals were pathways!
Professor Dominic Dwyer, a renown Australian immunologist and infectious diseases expert who is also a member of WHO’s team of experts argues that; “by virtue of their ecology, bats play a special role, not just with coronaviruses but with other infectious diseases” such as Ebola, Hendra among others. Other scientists strongly hold a similar view that Coronavirus pathway being animal is logical. Professor Andreas Önnerfors of Uppsala University and Swedish Research Council argues that “lab leak theory” and “China virus” are conspiracy theories meant to create a narrative that China be held accountable for the outbreak.
Put differently, in this age of misinformation and fake news, despite not having facts to back such claims, it is easy people to advance claims of “Lab leak” which arguably plays well with the so-called popular culture – in film I am Legend, Will Smith be acting as virologist, trusty canine by his side, an AK-47 gun and vaccine in hand. Dear world leaders, fighting a pandemic should not be reduced to film scenes.
Allawi Ssemanda is a Research Fellow at Development Watch Centre, a Ugandan based Foreign Policy Think Tank.