Science Alone Can’t Solve Covid-19. The Humanities Must Help

Article by Anna Magdalena Elsner and Vanesa Rampton: “…To judge by news reports, the humanities are “nice to have” — think of the entertainment value of balcony music or an online book club — but not essential for helping resolve the crisis. But as the impacts of public health measures ripple through societies, languages, and cultures, thinking critically about our reaction to SARS-CoV-2 is as important as new scientific findings about the virus. The humanities can contribute to a deeper understanding of the entrenched mentalities and social dynamics that have informed society’s response to this crisis. And by encouraging us to turn a mirror on our own selves, they prompt us to question whether we are the rational individuals that we aspire to be, and whether we are sufficiently equipped, as a society, to solve our own problems.

WE ARE CREATURES of stories. Scholarship in the medical humanities has persistently emphasized that narratives are crucial for how humans experience illness. For instance, Felicity Callard, a professor of human geography, has written about how a lack of “narrative anchors” during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic led to confusion over what counts as a “mild” symptom and what the “normal” course of the disease looks like, ultimately heightening the suffering the disease caused. Existing social conditions, previous illnesses and disabilities, a sense of precarity — all of these factors influence our attitude toward disease and how it affects the way we exist in the world.

We are entangled with nature. We tend to imagine a human world separate from natural laws, but the novel coronavirus reminds us of the extent to which we are intricately bound up with the life around us. As philosopher David Benatar has noted, the emergence of the new coronavirus is most likely a result of our treatment of nonhuman animals. The virus has forced us to alter our behavior, likely triggering higher rates of anxiety, depression, and other stress-related responses. In essence, it has shown how what we think of as “non-human” can become a fundamental part of our lives in unexpected ways.

We react to crises in predictable fashion, and with foreseeable cognitive and moral failings. A growing body of work suggests that, although we want to act on knowledge, it is our nature to react instinctively and short-sightedly. Images of overcapacity intensive care units, for example, galvanize us to comply with lockdown restrictions, even as we have much more difficulty acting prudentially to prevent the emergence of such viruses. The desire for a quick solution has fueled a race for a vaccine, even though — as historian of science David Jones has noted — failures and false starts have been recurring themes in past attempts to handle epidemics. Even if a vaccine were available, it wouldn’t erase the striking disparities in health outcomes across class, race, and gender…(More)”.