A reflection on technology, spirituality and the Covid-19 vaccine
Laurens Buijs is a social scientist specialized in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). He is interested in the ways in which patriarchal structures are translated into the institutions, relations and technologies of modern society, and how more inclusive and democratic alternatives can be developed.
A first version of this text was published in May 2020
As I expressed in my previous article on the mRNA vaccine, there is something profoundly wrong with the way in which we deploy science and technology in the Covid pandemic — too monodisciplinary, too top-down, too much isolated from society. I call this the problem of detached science.
I also believe the dubious and often corrupt interests of big pharmaceutical companies cannot be separated from the science and technology they produce. I call this the problem of profit-driven science.
For these reasons, I am concerned that the vaccine and other technologies produced to control the pandemic will hit us in the face like a boomerang. Detached and profit-driven science will have real-life consequences. The question that I am concerned with from an STS perspective is: what are these consequences?
Until now I have addressed how these effects translate themselves into a vaccine technology that is compromised in terms of safety and efficiency. But another realistic danger is not malfunctioning technology, but in fact the opposite: very powerful technology that provides an effective fix in the short run, but that deepens the spiritual crisis of the planet in the long run.
I will start out by restating and re-adressing my original concern: that the boomerang might result in a compromised vaccine endangering our individual health. Then I will explain why I think anothet danger will be increasing dependency on profit-driven technologization on a collective level. I will close by sketching a spiritual path out of the pandemic, what I see as a necessary alternative to the technological path.
Boomerang effect option 1: poor quality vaccine
One possible boomerang effect of the functioning of science and technology in the current pandemic, is that the mRNA vaccine would be compromised in terms of safety and efficacy as a consequence of the boomerang effect mentioned in the introduction.
Through the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), I have learned how scientific knowledge is always “situated” — every theory, innovation and technology is the result of a long chain of relationships between humans and objects. Politics and interests inevitably play a role in these chains; the idea of value free science is an illusion.
The private interests of the pharmaceutical companies might have undermined the interest of public health that should drive an ethically responsible scientific process around an experimental technology. This could for example have resulted in a rushed process, a silencing of critical voices, a choice for riskier but more profitable tech over safer and more conventional tech, and sloppy research designs that underestimate the uncertainty of new technology.
The objectivity, transparency and neutrality of science in the pandemic is a serious concern. There are medical experts who have concerns about the speed in which an experimental technology like the mRNA vaccine is now rolled out. We should be concerned about politization of science, and about a political climate in which deviating positions are repressed. We should be concerned about how profit incentives hinder equal availability and distribution of the vaccines over the world. And we should be critical about the ways in which the strong lobby of Big Pharma is compromising the neutrality of watchdog agencies like the EMA.
On the other hand, we have also heard many biomedical scientists involved in the development of the vaccine who ensure us that the scientific process of vaccine development itself was never compromised for profit or other interests, and who stress that the step towards an mRNA vaccine is done responsibly and carefully. Moreover, top scientific journals have reported the development process in detail and have published about its safety.
Boomerang effect option 2: outsourcing through shock doctrines
Another possibility is that the boomerang effect is that we are tempted to see technology as the only solution for the pandemic.
Imagine that the vaccine indeed works as good as the optimists now say. Let us assume it is a technological marvel, a product of the innovative power and true genius of biomedical science. An extremely effective vaccine that can be produced quickly and safely, with hardly any side effects. Imagine that the vaccine is the outcome of a perfect alignment of neoliberal profit-thinking, brilliant science, and public health. A win-win-win.
Would that necessarily be a desirable outcome on the longer term? Basically that means that our approach to the virus has been only short term risk management and technological mediation. Full on the breaks with a lockdown, creating mass feelings of helplessness and fear, and then full investment in hyper fast technological innovation through profit incentives.
This approach has many similarities to what Naomi Klein describes as a shock doctrine: a way of public management centered around shock and fear — a climate that makes us more inclined to adopt all sorts of radical economic, political, legal and technological reforms for which there is no public support under normal circumstances. These reforms often serve the interests of the status quo, instead of critically engaging with them.
With this approach, is it not way too tempting to start life like before again without any deeper lessons learned? I am afraid this creates a society with even more dependence on big tech, big pharma and surveillance capitalism than was the case before. The immediate threat to our health is gone, but we live on even further detached from Gaia, with even more inequality and even less autonomy.
Imagine that this becomes our standard response to planetary emergencies, not only pandemics but for example also climate change. This will result in an approach where we are just implementing an endless chain of technological quick fixes… until we have outsourced our entire freedom and human dignity to big tech, big gov, big corp?
How to listen to the virus? A spiritual approach
Could it be that the pandemic in essence requires much more than a project in risk management and scientific innovation? Is there not a deeper meaning attached to Covid? Is the pandemic not trying to convey a message about our way of living, our relationship with our bodies and each other, and our relationship to Earth? Is the pandemic not a symptom of a planet thrown out of balance, succumbing to overpopulation, hypermobility and collapsing ecosystems? Is the virus not inviting us to make a movement that is not just technological, but also spiritual so to say — a movement inwards?
Is this not the ideal time to envision entirely new societies, economies, democracies and relationships, new ways of relating to risks and new ways to deploy our technologies and sciences? And then not based on profit, growth and ego, but based on balance, circularity, equality and other values that are truly inspired by our souls?
This is where I think the real danger lies: that we start to believe these technological innovations are a solution to the problems we face, instead of a temporary fix. That we lose our critical capacity to challenge the power networks pushing the technologies, and become more and more dependent on them. That we forget that the way out of this global emergency is not through the mind, but through the heart.
I see an urgent need for activism here. How can we democratize our technologies? How can we take back control of the technologies of Big Pharma and make them part of a transparent agenda of personal growth and societal reform? How can we create space for more structural solutions to the threats to our personal and public health, through better relations with our bodies, but also though a better relation with our planet?
How can we manage the virus in different ways than through extremely disruptive policy measures like social distancing, social isolation and lockdowns? How do we give people a sense of power and control over their own health and body back, challenging the current climate of fear and dispair? How can severe illness be prevented and/or treated with low threshold interventions, like breathing techniques, diet interventions, supplements, stress reduction, meditation and alternative medicine?
I think we do not discuss these questions nearly enough. The science around the pandemic is too much dominated by the biomedical discipline, supplanting insights from the social, economic, psychological, philosophical and other sciences. We miss an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scientific approach, resulting in tunnel vision and lack of critical perspective. We see the same hegemony in politics, policies and news cycles regarding the pandemic, which are often trapped in a discourse implicitly informed by frames and values of risk aversion and monodisciplinary Western medicine.
Established science, politics and media have generally been unsuccessful in putting the pandemic in a broader psychological, societal and political context. Therefore we miss the opportunity to use the pandemic as a mirror in which we can look at ourselves in a caring but also critical way. A mirror through which we can critically assess our lifestyles, institutions and societies.
It is important that in uncertain times like these we rely on science and technology. We are very lucky to have a scientific discipline as innovate and dynamic as biomedical sciences. We all have a responsibility to prevent further spread of public distrust towards science — the radicalizing anti-science movements are worrying. At the same time, the scientific community itself also has a responsibility here. Scientists can learn to become more interdisciplinary, less isolated, better connected to concerns and values of society, and more critical to the interests that fund them.
In conclusion, the way in which science and technology are deployed around this pandemic is outright worrying and will have repercussions. The science is detached and pushed by private interests, contributing to an increasingly technocratic approach to this and other global emergencies. The long term dangers of this cannot be underestimated — the tools to fight the pandemic today can be the tools of mass manipulation tomorrow.
We are now in a situation where Covid is once again out of control. New mutations result in even faster spreading. Now is the time to consider saving lives as the top priority. Also, the world is tired of this pandemic and it is no more than logical that we grab very opportunity to catch a breath. The mRNA vaccines seem like the most plausible way to get some relief on the short term and to release pressure of our health systems.
But the vaccine is not a golden bullet solution to the pandemic. It is an efficient and safe tech fix at best, giving us a bit more comfort and buying us some time to make structural changes before the virus returns or another similar global catastrophe will present itself. We should not confuse technological fixes with long term solutions.
Moreover, there is no reason to write off everyone who is sceptic about the vaccine as irresponsible or even dumb. There are many good reasons to be critical of the vaccine and the way it is sold to us. The technology is experimental and the companies that produce them are widely distrusted — and for good reasons.
Mass registration by governments of citizens who take and don’t take the vaccine — with the intend to attach consequences to this in terms of policies or citizenship — is reprehensible and never justified. Ultimately no one should feel forced to take this vaccine and everyone should feel free to refuse it, without consequences for their rights as citizens. It is actually a worrying sign of the current polarized times that this should be stated explicitly — it should be self evident.
Many people will take the vaccine as soon as it is available. But taking the vaccine does not rule out having a critical stance towards the way in which science and technology are deployed in this global health emergency.
We can embrace biomedical science, and at the same time be critical about its detached character and the private interests that push and control it. We can take the vaccine, and at the same time question the solutions western media, politics and science offer. We can desire the protection that the vaccine will provide us, and at the same time be critical towards the definitions of sickness and health that are sold to us by Western medicine.
I miss a strategy towards the pandemic that is in the core spiritual instead of technological. An approach that embraces and respects science and technology, but that also recognizes that enduring and structural solutions for the pandemic are not found primarily in technological fixes, but in our hearts and souls. Let’s learn to listen to what Covid truly has to say to us.
Go to my website for more publications: laurensbuijs.org