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Epidemiologists and unexpected lessons

  • 15 September 2021
  A striking feature of the Australia’s path through Coronavirus has been the coming out of epidemiologists and social biologists. From being little known members of small institutes they became rock stars, invited to press conferences, deferred to by politicians, selectively chosen for comment by the media, but also resented by representatives of big business and defenders of individual freedom.

The resentment is understandable because their expert advice has urged restrictions on freedom that business groups wanted removed, and their advice has prevailed. But perhaps it also points to deeper differences between the two approaches. The business lobby looked for a response that focused on the big, the certain and the technological. Scientists concerned with the spread of epidemics and the response to them focus simultaneously on the big and the small, on the probable and the human.  

Those who wanted to remove restrictions in the interests of economic growth wanted certainty in naming a timetable for freedom and in fixing in advance the conditions that must be met, and promising certainty. Without certainty about laying in supplies, contracting staff and opening premises, it is difficult for big businesses to operate. They wanted a hard science that could deal with large quantities, organise deliveries on time, find the technological challenges to sourcing and delivery. If they had in mind a relevant field of expertise it would be mechanical engineering.

Instead of that, they got epidemiology, assisted by the human sciences. It is paradoxical in that it also deals in very large numbers — trillions of viruses, large human populations and potential infections. But at is centre is the need to predict the behaviour of small and uncertain things and to give advice based on that behaviour. The cause of the pandemic was the simplest and smallest of beings — a protein and a prick, as the Coronavirus was described. It had the capacity to change unpredictably and so defeat the defences marshalled against it. Those defences lay partly in technology — vaccines — but also necessarily in the changed behaviour of large populations of people and in the acceptance by individual persons of those changes.

Both the spread and the restriction of infection have been shaped by human behaviour. The epidemiological response also lay in modifying that behaviour through large scale organisation to dismantle shared workplaces, close schools and shops, limit freedom of movement and of association in groups at pubs, churches and sporting grounds. These are precisely the activities that mediate economic