Edinburgh Impact

No power without wisdom: Covid’s hard lesson

The pandemic has brutally exposed our lack of respect for moral and social knowledge. This must be relearned, quickly.

Tired doctor

By Professor Shannon Vallor, Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence at the Edinburgh Futures Institute

Covid-19 has been a harsh test of human wisdom and resilience. That’s to be expected of a global pandemic. Health experts have warned us for decades to prepare for just such a gruelling trial. And gruelling it is, in all the ways we were told it would be—physically, psychologically and economically.

Yet one of the most painful lessons of the pandemic has taken us by surprise, although in hindsight it was evident long before SARS-COV-2 mutated into existence. The surprise is that we have fundamentally misunderstood what kind of knowledge 21st century societies most need in order to survive a pandemic, or indeed any existential threat.

The fundamental miscalculation

Consider that among the nations thought best equipped to meet the challenge at the start of the pandemic, the United Kingdom and the United States were near the top of the list. The UK and the US have long dominated the world’s rankings for universities producing cutting-edge scientific and technological research, in turn fuelling many of the world’s most exciting innovations across the technology and health sectors.

And yet, the 2020 public health performance of these countries held a shock: these strengths did not ensure early and successful virus suppression, effective contract tracing regimes, or even adequate supplies of PPE and chemical test reagents. Each suffered devastating waves of uncontrolled infection and the highest numbers of death per capita among wealthy countries. Why?

Covid-19 patient wheeled in hospital

After all, in both the UK and US, scientific and technical innovation are claimed to be primary drivers of national strength and resilience, warranting the diversion of ever more funding to STEM education and research at the expense of the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Scientific and technical innovation have of course enabled the US and UK to bounce back in 2021, thanks to the choice of both countries to mount aggressive vaccination strategies. Even so, the long-term success of these strategies remains in jeopardy; uncontrolled transmission in under-vaccinated nations such as India and Brazil threatens the global spread of ever-more virulent, transmissible and vaccine-resistant variants. Meanwhile, vaccination progress in the United States is slowing and even after over half a million reported deaths, experts doubt that the country will ever reach herd immunity due to low uptake of the vaccine, which continues to be politicized amid widespread anti-vax disinformation in online communities.

A missing ingredient

Certainly, no nation could manage the Covid crisis, nor any comparable threat, without drawing on a deep and broad repository of scientific and technological expertise: in public health, medicine, immunology, epidemiology, genetics, data science, AI, mathematics, nursing, pharmacology, economics, manufacturing and many other fields. But the UK and the US were research powerhouses in all of these.

Why was it not enough to avoid sky-high death counts and repeated waves of uncontrolled infections? How could scientific and technological strength, so often portrayed as the most vital contributors to national security, do so little to protect citizens from a disaster that was predicted and planned for years in advance? And most importantly, what do countries need to learn from this failure, in order to rebound and prepare better for the inevitable next test? What is the missing ingredient?

Underinvestment in communities

The Covid-19 story will only be captured through many interlocking narratives. We cannot reduce any particular failure to a single cause. But one thing has become clear: when a calamity such as this strikes, it will not be stopped or contained by equations, data, AI, apps or fever scanners alone. Especially when overreliance on isolated scientific and technical capabilities has led us to underinvest in the kinds of expertise needed to prevent deep neglect of growing social, political, and moral vulnerabilities in our communities.

No amount of immunological expertise was going to prevent a virus from spreading like wildfire through understaffed and under resourced care homes. Or overcrowded and unsanitary US prisons. Or minoritised communities long neglected and mistreated by the medical system. Or the legions of underpaid and precarious front-line workers unable to remain safe at home like their white-collar fellows.

Covid-19 spreads through a crowd

Enlisting high-tech software wizards to rush out contact-tracing apps was not going to earn the trust of citizens already primed by years of unregulated ‘surveillance creep’ to regard tech companies and government leaders with equal suspicion. Scientific messaging about social distancing sounds like white noise to citizens subjected to decades of anti-intellectual rhetoric from the same political leaders who have trained them to accept ever more cynical forms of doublespeak, manipulation and deception from those in positions of authority.

Even the data behind the duty to adopt the simplest and most low-risk, high-reward technology of the moment—a mask—was always going to be widely ignored by citizens primed by divisive national rhetoric to treat one another not as civic fellows, bonded in relationships of mutual care and solidarity, but as competitors in a zero-sum political game in which ‘winners’ merely take, never give or sacrifice.

Such vulnerabilities eat away at the health of the social body even during times of relative ‘normality.’ We must also recognise their power to negate nearly every strength and capability that scientific knowledge and technical innovation would otherwise lend us in times of crisis.

Recouple scientific and moral knowledge

In many of the wealthiest and most powerful nations on the planet, decades of short-sighted, regressive policies have nearly finalised the long-sought divorce of scientific and technical expertise from humanity’s deeper well of social, political, and moral knowledge. This divorce comes at an exorbitant cost in human lives and happiness, a price we are now paying heavily. Of course, we cannot fight this pandemic without science and technology. But we can’t beat a pandemic without reintegrating our cutting-edge scientific knowledge with our knowledge of the social body and its own needs for moral, intellectual and political health.

The lesson of Covid-19 is that scientific and technical expertise stripped away from humane wisdom—social, moral and political knowledge of what matters, what we value, what needs preserving, repairing and caring for together—is a mere illusion of security. It’s an expensive life raft lacking rations, a compass, a map or a paddle. It cannot carry us safely into the futures we all need to build, for our nations, humankind and for coming generations of life on this planet.

Grandparents meet grandchild through window

This is why I came to the University of Edinburgh in 2020 to join the Edinburgh Futures Institute and direct our new Centre for Technomoral Futures, where our mission is to unify technical and moral modes of future-building expertise in new models of research, education, design and engagement that directly serve the goals of sustainable, just and ethical innovation.

A flourishing world for 8 billion people can’t be built without scientific and technological achievements. But the lesson of the past year is that the human family won’t succeed at this task unless these achievements are reintegrated with moral knowledge of what kinds of futures are good for us to build, and how people build good futures together. This knowledge secures the value of every scientific discovery and technical innovation, because those powers are wasted without the moral and political ability to use them wisely.

This lesson will take time to absorb and act on, but we cannot afford to delay. Learning it now requires wiser, more sustainable and far-seeing national policies and priorities. It demands new cultures of education and investment that start to reweave the threads of scientific, technological, social and moral knowledge into something like wisdom. But even now, as the pain of Covid-19 continues to reverberate in our wounded lives and institutions, we can begin reflecting and changing, which is just what learning is. It’s not too early. And I don’t believe it’s yet too late.

Image credits: Covid doctor: Getty/Dean Mitchell; Patient in bed: Getty/xavierarnau; Crowd: Getty/peterhowell; Grandparents with child: Getty/RyanJLane

The views expressed in this section are those of the contributors, and do not necessarily represent those of the University.