As the viral blitzkrieg rolls across one European border after another, it seems to have a particular enmity for Italy. The country’s death toll has passed China’s, and scenes from its hospitals look like something out of Dante’s imagination.
Unfortunately I am in lockdown at home in Edinburgh and cannot get down to Westminster Magistrates Court for Julian Assange’s urgent bail application today. Several hearings ago, Magistrate Baraitser stated pre-emptively that she would not grant bail, before any application had been made. Today’s application will argue that Assange’s ill health puts him at extreme danger from COVID-19, and that prison conditions make it impossible to avoid infection.
Understandably, these days we hear a lot about the symptoms of Covid-19 (dry cough, high fever, etc.). Conversely, there is much less discussion of the virus as a symptom. Let’s say then that to intervene on the symptoms of the virus it is necessary not only to have specific scientific knowledge, but also to put in place a serious reflection on the structural causes of its global spread and, with them, the possibilities of change that the emergency opens up for us, at least theoretically. If mainstream information focuses on the management of the epidemic, reflecting on its causes could lead to a series of far from irrelevant considerations.
The British Royal Navy’s future flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth arrives at her new home port of Portsmouth, Britain, 16 August 2017. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Gerry Penny)
New analysis shows that Britain plans to spend hundreds of billions of pounds on expensive military projects while the UK’s under-funded public health system struggles to address pandemics such as Covid-19.
Readers will note that this article is nearly twice the length of the normal MR piece, but because of the importance of the subject we are publishing it in its entirety. The text is based on a talk given by the author at the Brecht Forum in New York. —Eds.
Richard Levins (1930–2016) was a professor of biology at Harvard University. He achieved international recognition for decades of work over in the field of epidemiology.
The scientific tradition of the “West,” of Europe and North America, has had its greatest success when it has dealt with what we have come to think of as the central questions of scientific inquiry: “What is this made of?” and “How does this work?” Over the centuries, we have developed more and more sophisticated ways of answering these questions. We can cut things open, slice them thin, stain them, and answer what they are made of. We have made great achievements in these relatively simple areas but have had dramatic failures in attempts to deal with more complex systems. We see this especially when we ask questions about health. When we look at the changing patterns of health over the last century or so, we have both cause for celebration and for dismay. Human life expectancy has increased by perhaps thirty years since the beginning of the twentieth century and the incidence of some of the classical deadly diseases has declined and almost disappeared. Smallpox presumably has been eradicated; leprosy is very rare; and polio has nearly vanished from most regions of the world. Scientific technologies have advanced to the point where we can give very sophisticated diagnoses, distinguishing between kinds of germs that are very similar to each other.